A North Carolina jail violated an inmate’s due process rights when it denied him a hearing prior to sentencing him to two stints in disciplinary segregation, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Nov. 7.
In 2013, plaintiff Anthony Dilworth was being held at the New Hanover County Detention Facility, awaiting trial for larceny and drug possession. While there, he was involved in two physical altercations — one with another inmate and one with detention officers — that netted him a total of 85 days in segregated lockup.
Dilworth sued under Section 1983, asserting that his rights were violated because while the law provides for his pretrial incarceration, it also provides him due process as someone not yet convicted of the charges against him.
Jail officials admitted that they didn’t afford Dilworth a hearing, but contended that they had no duty to do so because his due process rights were satisfied when it allowed him to file a written appeal after being placed in segregation.
To the hole
On May 11, 2013, Dilworth fought with another inmate. Within the hour, he had been written up and placed in segregation for 45 days. Dilworth claimed self-defense and 10 days later filed a written appeal pursuant to the jail’s disciplinary procedures. His appeal was dismissed by administrative review officer A.R. Fales, who said video evidence could not show who started the fight.
Not long after Dilworth’s release, he was involved in an altercation in which two officers took him down and used “knee spears” and punches to restrain him. Dilworth said one of the officers attacked him after the two traded insults. Officers say Dilworth refused to comply with orders and resisted their efforts to cuff him.
Dilworth was sent back to segregation, where he filed a grievance seeking a hearing and filed another written appeal. Fales dismissed this appeal, too, stating: “I am not required to recommend a disciplinary hearing if grounds for such do not exist.”
Dilworth sued in November 2013, alleging in his pro se action that jail officials violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment by denying him a hearing. He also claimed that the two officers used excessive force in the second incident.
The district court granted the defendants summary judgment on both claims, holding that while Dilworth, as a pretrial detainee, could not be placed in segregation as a punishment without due process, the jail satisfied that due process by informing Dilworth of the charges against him and allowing him to file a written appeal of the sanction.
Regarding excessive force, the court held that Dilworth failed to establish that the officers used force “maliciously and sadistically” rather than in a “good-faith effort” to maintain discipline. It concluded that summary judgment was appropriate because no reasonable juror could find that the officers had a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.”
Jail’s process ‘falls short’
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court case of Bell v. Wolfish, the 4th Circuit panel agreed with the district court that pretrial detainees, unlike convicts, retain a liberty interest in freedom from punishment even while being held to ensure their presence at trial.
But the defendants leaned on another decision, Sandin v. Conner, in claiming that only a “subcategory” of punishments that impose “atypical and significant hardship” on inmates will require due process protections.
The Sandlin court held that disciplinary segregation did not rise to this level, but, as the appeals court pointed out, Sandlin dealt with the punishment of convicted prisoners and “has no application to pretrial detainees like Dilworth.”
The court further considered whether Dilworth’s two assignments to segregation constituted a “punishment” under Bell, determining that the intent to punish was express and “manifestly clear from the record.” In their brief on appeal, jail officials consistently referred Dilworth’s placement as “disciplinary,” “disciplinary action” and “penalty for disciplinary violations.”
The court noted that the jail’s own policy appeared to treat disciplinary segregation as a sanction that triggers procedural protections.
“We, too, conclude that disciplinary segregation of a pretrial detainee, intended as a penalty for
disciplinary infractions, implicates a protected liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment and may not be imposed without due process,” Judge Pamela Harris wrote for the unanimous panel.
The court admitted that the realities of a jail environment require some flexibility in the due process application in order to maintain order and safety. But the Supreme Court set out, in 1974’s Wolff v. McDonnell, minimum standards that were not met here.
Dilworth was represented by Washington attorney Brantley Webb, who pointed out in an email to Lawyers Weekly that the jail believed it could abide by Wolff.
“Although the Detention Facility obviously did not apply them here, the fact is that its official policy mandates those requirements,” she said. The requirements, she added, state than an inmate may make a statement on his or her behalf, present witnesses and evidence, and question his or her accuser.
The court found that there is no question here what process Dilworth received: the opportunity to make a written appeal after his sanction was finalized.
“Nor can there be any question but that this process falls short of what Wolff requires,” Harris wrote.
The court also remanded Dilworth’s excessive force claim, finding that the district court’s subjective standard in evaluating the allegations must be replaced with a new objective standard mandated by the Supreme Court in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, which came down after the district court’s ruling.
Rather than prove an intent to “maliciously and sadistically cause harm,” according to Kingsley, it is enough that a pretrial detainee show that the “force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable,” regardless of an officer’s state of mind.
The 22-page decision is Dilworth v. Adams (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-158-16). A digest of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamachert