Inmate awarded habeas relief for lack of evidence in prison disciplinary action

A prisoner accused of bringing heroin into a correctional facility has been granted habeas relief after the United States District Court of the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, found the defense failed to provide evidence he committed the crime.

In August 2019, Terry Davis was an inmate at the Pendleton Correctional Facility.

Upon return from a visit, Davis was searched by an officer, and three bags fell out of his pants. The officer thought the bags appeared to contain marijuana, and he instructed Davis to submit to handcuffs.

According to the officer, Davis offered him a bribe to avoid being punished, and when he refused, Davis ran and flushed “something down the toilet” and “threw something else in the trash can.”

Following the incident, Davis was charged with possessing a controlled substance. In addition to a report of conduct by the officer, the evidence included a plastic bag containing a ball of something, and a chemical test kit. An evidence record describes the ball as tobacco wrapped around a blue bag. The test kit indicated a positive test for heroin.

Davis was found guilty at a hearing. The hearing officer wrote that the conduct report was clear, video showed Davis discarding a substance and the substance “tested positive for heroin.” The hearing officer assessed sanctions, including a deprivation of earned credit time and a demotion in credit-earning class.

However, the Indiana Southern District found no evidence — not an evidence log, nor an affidavit — that confirmed that the ball in the plastic bag was one of the bags that fell out of Davis’ pants leg, or that this is what he threw in the trash can. Likewise, no evidence showed that the substance identified as heroin was the substance in the plastic bag.

The record only included black-and-white pictures of a plastic bag with a ball in it next to Davis’ identification badge, of an evidence record and of the test kit, all with Davis’ disciplinary case number handwritten on them after the fact in blue ink.

“The record suggests that Davis broke several prison rules. However, no evidence indicates that he possessed heroin or another controlled substance,” Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt opined for the court. “None of the reports in the record document that the plastic bag in the photograph was ever in Davis’ possession. And if it was, none of the reports in the record document that the substance in the photograph was the substance identified as heroin. Accordingly, the disciplinary conviction must be vacated.”

As a final matter, the respondent argued that Davis failed to raise the reliability of the evidence in his administrative appeals and should be barred from raising it here. The court disagreed.

“… Davis plainly raised concerns about the handling and testing of the evidence in his administrative review, and that was enough to notify the prison administration of the issue and avoid default,” Walton Pratt wrote.

The case is Terry Davis v. Dennis Reagle, 1:20-cv-02763.

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