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Tran v. Ortiz

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 21, 2019

VO TRAN, Petitioner,
v.
DAVID ORTIZ, Respondent.

          OPINION

          Robert B. Kugler, United States District Judge.

         Petitioner, Vo Tran, is a federal prisoner currently incarcerated at FCI Fort Dix, in Fort Dix, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. Respondent filed an Answer opposing relief (ECF No. 3), and Petitioner filed a Reply (ECF No. 6). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny the Petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from a disciplinary hearing during Petitioner's incarceration at FCI Fort Dix. On February of 2016, officials discovered a cell phone in Petitioner's housing unit. A forensic report of the phone revealed five contacts, four of which matched numbers on Petitioner's approved contact list. Petitioner had registered these four numbers to his parent, sibling, spouse, and attorney. Consequently, on March 10, 2016, officials issued an incident report charging Petitioner with possession of a hazardous tool, in violation of Bureau of Prisons Code 108, [1] delivered the report to Petitioner, and advised him of his rights. Upon receiving his rights, Petitioner stated: “none of those calls belong to me. I never had possession of that phone. The calls and dates on the incident report are not mine, I will have my family send in the phone bill to show they do not belong to me.” (ECF No. 3-2, at 19).

         The investigating official referred the incident report to the Unit Discipline Committee (“UDC”). The UDC then referred the incident report to a Discipline Hearing Officer (“DHO”), due to the severity of the charges and again advised Petitioner of his rights.

         On April 21, 2016, the DHO held a hearing and again advised Petitioner of his rights. Petitioner confirmed that he did not want a staff representative and did not wish to call any witnesses. The DHO had postponed and rescheduled an earlier hearing, however, to provide Petitioner with time to acquire his family's cell phone records. Petitioner again stated that he did not know how the numbers wound up on the phone.

         The DHO considered Petitioner's statements in reaching a decision, as well as: the incident report; the chain of custody log for the cell phone; a memorandum from the staff member who recovered the cell phone in Petitioner's housing unit; a photo of the cellphone, a forensic report detailing the contacts on the phone and call history; a system report indicating that several of the phone numbers matched the numbers on Petitioner's approved contact list; and the phone bill records from Petitioner's family. Petitioner argued that his family's phone bill records did not match the calls on the forensic report.

         Among other things, the DHO found that the system report showed that several of the phone numbers at issue were only on Petitioner's approved phone list, rather than on any other inmates' approved list, and that officials had discovered the phone in Petitioner's housing unit. More specifically, DHO concluded, “the fact that these numbers are tied only to you in Truview and you were assigned to the same unit where the cell phone was found shows that you had an opportunity to have these persons contacted for you or you contacted these persons.” (ECF No. 3-3, at 4). The DHO also found that Petitioner's denials were not credible and that the phone records were “inconclusive, ” in part, because Petitioner submitted redacted phone records and failed to submit text message records. Id. According to Petitioner, his family redacted all or parts of the phone numbers to protect their privacy interests and that the call times, alone, were sufficient to prove his innocence.

         After considering all of the evidence, the DHO concluded that Petitioner committed the act of aiding in the possession of a dangerous tool, in violation of Code 108. The DHO then issued the following sanctions: (1) revocation of forty days of good conduct time; (2) loss of email privileges for sixty days; and (3) loss of phone privileges for sixty days.

         Petitioner appealed the DHO's decision, arguing, among other things, that the evidence did not support the DHO's findings and that the decision was arbitrary. More specifically, Petitioner argued that his family's phone records did not match the calls from the forensic report, and that therefore, he could not have possessed the phone, or aided in the possession thereof. At each level of appeal, Petitioner received a denial.

         Petitioner then filed the instant Petition, again arguing that the DHO's decision was arbitrary. Respondent filed an Answer (ECF No. 3), and Petitioner filed a Reply (ECF No. 6).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW & JURISDICTION

         Courts hold pro se pleadings to less stringent standards than more formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). Courts must construe pro se habeas petitions and any supporting submissions liberally and with a measure of tolerance. See Royce v. Hahn, 151 F.3d 116, 118 (3d Cir. 1998).

         If the Court does not dismiss the petition at the screening stage, the Court “must review the answer, any transcripts and records . . . to determine whether” the matter warrants an evidentiary hearing. Rule 8(a) of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts (made applicable to proceedings under § 2241 by Rule 1(b)). “Whether to order a hearing is within the sound discretion of the trial court, ” and depends on whether the hearing “would have the potential to advance the petitioner's claim.” Campbell v. Vaughn,209 F.3d 280, 287 (3d Cir. 2000); States ...


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