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McKnight v. Thaler

March 30, 2010

TONY LYNN MCKNIGHT, TDCJ #781305, PETITIONER,
v.
RICK THALER, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE - CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS DIVISION, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nancy F. Atlas

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

The petitioner, Tony Lynn McKnight (TDCJ #781305), is a state inmate incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division (collectively, "TDCJ"). McKnight has filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the result of two prison disciplinary convictions. The respondent has filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that McKnight is not entitled to relief. [Doc. # 11]. McKnight has filed a response. After reviewing all of the pleadings, the administrative records, and the applicable law, the Court grants the respondent's motion and dismisses this case for reasons set forth below.

I. BACKGROUND

McKnight is presently incarcerated as the result of a felony conviction for indecency with a child by exposure and for burglary of a building. [Doc. # 11, Exhibit A]. McKnight does not challenge any of his underlying convictions here. Instead, he challenges the result of two prison disciplinary proceedings lodged against him at the Estelle Unit, in Huntsville, Texas, where he is presently confined. Both of the disciplinary charges at issue were initiated against McKnight on August 14, 2008. The respondent has provided the administrative report and record of the investigation, as well as an audiotape from the disciplinary hearing. [Doc. # 12]. The charged offenses and the disciplinary proceedings are described briefly below.

In disciplinary case #20080344668, officials charged McKnight with violating prison rules by making an "unauthorized commodity transfer" to another inmate, identified as Frederick Lane (TDCJ #688213). In particular, McKnight was accused of drawing pictures of naked children and transferring those drawings to Lane. In disciplinary case #20080346677, officials charged McKnight with possessing contraband, namely, "pornographic drawings and pictures cut of out magazines of small children," which items were not allowed or authorized.

At a disciplinary hearing on August 21, 2008, McKnight entered a plea of "not guilty" in both cases. The charging officer's report included a letter from McKnight in which he admitted that he made "some drawings that depict little kids naked" and that he "reluctantly" drew them for Lane's "sexual enjoyment." The record also contained drawings of scantily clad children in various poses. One of them is holding a pacifier shaped like a penis. After considering the all of the evidence and testimony at the hearing, the disciplinary captain found McKnight guilty as charged in both cases.

As a result of the disciplinary convictions in #20080344668 and #20080346677, McKnight spent 15 days in solitary confinement. In addition, the disciplinary captain suspended McKnight's commissary privileges for a total of 45 days and he was also restricted to his cell for that same period. McKnight was reduced in classification status from L1 to L3. McKnight's contact visitation privileges were suspended for four months, through December 21, 2008. In addition, McKnight forfeited 60 days of previously earned credit for good conduct (i.e., "good-time credit") as a result of his conviction in #20080344668. McKnight challenged both convictions by filing a Step 1 and Step 2 grievance, but his appeals were unsuccessful.

McKnight now seeks a federal writ of habeas corpus to challenge his disciplinary convictions. McKnight complains that the disciplinary conviction violates due process because the charges were not supported by sufficient evidence. The respondent argues that McKnight is not entitled to relief because he fails to show that he was punished improperly without due process. The parties' contentions are discussed below under the standard of review that governs disciplinary proceedings in the prison context.

II. PRISON DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS

McKnight seeks a federal writ of habeas corpus to challenge the result of two prison disciplinary convictions, which resulted in the loss of 60 days of good-time credit and other miscellaneous sanctions. The federal writ of habeas corpus is an extraordinary remedy which shall not extend to any prisoner unless he is "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241(c)(3) & 2254(a); Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 633-34 (1993) (explaining that "the writ of habeas corpus has historically been regarded as an extraordinary remedy, a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness"). The respondent argues that McKnight fails to demonstrate a valid claim because he does not show that he was punished as a result of the disciplinary charges in violation of constitutionally mandated safeguards.

In the disciplinary hearing context a prisoner's rights, if any, are governed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557 (1974). However, prisoners charged with institutional rules violations are entitled to rights under the Due Process Clause only when the disciplinary action may result in a sanction that will infringe upon a constitutionally protected liberty interest. See Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995). Liberty interests emanate from either the Due Process Clause itself or from state law. See Kentucky Dept. of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460 (1989). A convicted prisoner does not have a constitutional right to conditional release before the expiration of a valid sentence. See Greenholtz v. Inmates of the Neb. Penal & Correctional Complex, 442 U.S. 1, 7 (1979). Likewise, the Constitution does not guarantee an inmate good-time credit for satisfactory behavior while in prison. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557 (1974); Madison v. Parker, 104 F.3d 765, 768 (5th Cir. 1997). Absent a showing that his disciplinary conviction has implicated a constitutionally protected interest, a prisoner's due process claim depends on the existence of an interest created by state law.

The Supreme Court has decided that only those state-created substantive interests which "inevitably affect the duration of [a prisoner's] sentence" may qualify for constitutional protection under the Due Process Clause. Sandin, 515 U.S. at 487. See also Orellana v. Kyle, 65 F.3d 29, 31-32 (5th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1059 (1996). In Texas, it is well established that only those inmates who are eligible for mandatory supervision have a constitutional expectancy of early release under the Texas mandatory supervision scheme and a protected liberty interest in the good-time credits that they have earned. Malchi v. Thaler, 211 F.3d 953, 956 (5th Cir. 2000) (addressing the mandatory supervision scheme in place prior to September 1, 1996); see also Teague v. Quarterman, 482 F.3d 769 (5th Cir. 2007) (addressing the mandatory supervision scheme in place before and after September 1, 1996). McKnight's claims are addressed below in connection with the sanctions imposed in order to determine whether the punishment implicates the Due Process Clause in this instance.

1. Miscellaneous Sanctions: Loss of Privileges, Solitary Confinement, and Reduced Status

As outlined above, McKnight temporarily lost commissary and visitation privileges as a result of his disciplinary convictions in case #20080344668 and #20080346677. He was also temporarily placed in solitary confinement and he was restricted to his cell in the general population for 45 days. In ...


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