Lennear v. Wilson
Decided: August 23, 2019
The Fourth Circuit held that inmates at risk of being deprived of a liberty interest, such as good time credits, have a qualified right to obtain and present video surveillance evidence. The Court also held that in evaluating whether prison officials’ failure to disclose or consider evidence was harmless, the courts must determine whether the excluded evidence could have aided the inmate’s defense. The Court reasoned the district court failed to resolve several critical factual questions bearing on whether petitioner was denied that right in a disciplinary proceeding that led to revocation of petitioner’s good time credits. Therefore, the Court vacated the district court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Petitioner Nicholas Lennear (“Petitioner”), a federal inmate, appealed a decision denying his habeas petition asserting that prison officials violated Petitioner’s due process rights when officials did not review allegedly pertinent video surveillance evidence in a disciplinary proceeding. Petitioner asked the Court to find that under Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974), due process guaranteed Petitioner the right to access and to present video surveillance evidence in the prison disciplinary proceedings, absent a penological justification. Petitioner further asked the Court to conclude the district court erred in applying the “some evidence” standard in determining that the failure to disclose or consider the video surveillance evidence was harmless.
The Court reasoned that the universe of “documentary evidence” subject to the due process protections recognized in Wolff encompasses video surveillance evidence. The Court recognized that an inmate’s right to present documentary evidence necessarily contemplates the inmate’s right to obtain it, and therefore, the Court reasoned that an inmate has the qualified right under Wolff to both access such evidence and to compel official review of such evidence.
Further, the Court stated that because neither the district court nor the hearing officer ever viewed the alleged video, the Court could not determine whether, if at all, the video would have aided Petitioner’s defense. The Court determined that the record before it was inadequate to resolve several critical factual questions, including whether the requested video surveillance ever existed and whether the Petitioner timely requested such evidence.
Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.