ANALYSIS OF MARCH 21, 2019 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted March 21, 2019) On a day when we mark the end of a storied Major League career, we get a single, short opinion from the justices. Anderson v. Warden is a §1983 claim by an inmate who asserts that prison officials violated his due process rights during a disciplinary proceeding that resulted in a $10 fine.
After failing a drug test, Anderson faced administrative charges. Before the hearing, he asked for a chain-of-custody report and a list of his current medications, presumably to examine whether those legitimate drugs could generate a false positive. Instead of giving him what he sought, the hearing officer postponed the hearing and asked the prison’s medical staff if Anderson’s medications could produce an effect like that.
The medical staff said no, and the officer passed this conclusion along to Anderson. The officer then found a violation of regulations and imposed the fine. Anderson exhausted his administrative appeals before filing this civil-rights action, claiming that he should have received the requested evidence for his own defense.
A circuit-court judge sustained a demurrer, but a Supreme Court writ panel agreed to review the case. Today the justices unanimously affirm.
Today’s analysis begins with the Sandin doctrine, which Justice Kelsey describes today:
[P]rison disciplinary proceedings do not implicate a constitutionally protected liberty interest unless they impose an “atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”
The same rule applies to a property deprivation. Thus the question is whether this deprivation of evidence rises to that level. The court finds that it does not. Due process in this context requires, as relevant here, the ability to present evidence in your own defense.
But in criminal cases, you don’t have a constitutional right to discovery. You have even fewer rights in a disciplinary proceeding. That means that the inability to exercise a nonexistent right can’t be a constitutional deprivation.
If today’s opinion had ended there, this would be an unremarkable conclusion; call the next case. But the court goes on to add a belt to those suspenders, and in doing so will raise more than a few eyebrows.
The court rules, as an independent basis for affirming, that to find a constitutional violation, a defendant must show prejudice, in the sense that the evidence, if admitted, would have affected the outcome of the proceeding. Here’s how the court evaluates this factor in the context of this case:
At no point, either in the circuit court or on appeal, has Anderson proffered what the chain-of-custody report or list of medications would have proven. He has never alleged that the report would have shown a gap in the chain of custody or that it would have provided any other basis for exonerating him of the charge.
In my view, this imposes an impossible obligation on Anderson. The court says to him, in essence, “Because the prison concealed the requested information from you, you can’t prove that it would have helped you. Accordingly, you lose.” Today’s opinion notes that the hearing officer did investigate the drug-interaction possibility and concluded that there was no foundation for it. This ruling means that Anderson has to accept the officer’s word for it. As for the chain-of-custody evidence, the opinion merely says that Anderson hasn’t asserted that there actually was a gap. How could he know?
The finer points of this legal analysis foreseeably may be lost on a layman who reads this opinion. Withholding evidence results in disciplinary action against the accused? The context matters here, as prisoners in disciplinary proceedings don’t get the procedural protections of those defending against criminal charges in the first place. Even so, I believe this opinion would have been easier to swallow without the last two substantive paragraphs.