Due Process in Prison Disciplinary Hearings: How the “Some Evidence” Standard of Proof Violates the Constitution
December 01, 2021 | 96 Wash. L. Rev. 1613
Abstract: Prison disciplinary hearings have wide-reaching impacts on an incarcerated individual’s liberty. A sanction following a guilty finding is a consequence that stems from hearings and goes beyond mere punishment. Guilty findings for serious infractions, like a positive result on a drug test, can often result in a substantial increase in prison time. Before the government deprives an incarcerated individual of their liberty interest in a shorter sentence, it must provide minimum due process. However, an individual can be found guilty of serious infractions in Washington State prison disciplinary hearings under the “some evidence” standard of proof—a standard that allows for a fact finder to find an individual guilty with any amount of evidence, even when overwhelming evidence indicates they are innocent. Washington lacks a statutory and regulatory basis for the “some evidence” standard of proof. Although the Washington State Supreme Court seems to have endorsed its use, a closer look at the Court’s cases reveals confusion between the constitutionally required standard of proof and the standard for judicial review.
In Superintendent v. Hill, the United States Supreme Court held that courts must generally review prison disciplinary findings for “some evidence.” Hill did not decide what standard of proof the Due Process Clause requires at the initial hearing. Still, subsequent Washington State cases have relied on Hill to justify the “some evidence” standard of proof. This Comment shows that this reliance is erroneous. Instead, courts should apply the foundational Mathews v. Eldridge due process analysis to determine the necessary standard of proof. In determining the necessary standard, this Comment demonstrates that using “some evidence” as the standard of proof does not meet minimum constitutional requirements. To protect the rights of incarcerated individuals, prison disciplinary hearings involving serious infractions should require the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof. This standard would allow cases to be correctly decided, and individuals would not be unjustly disciplined.
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