ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY. (D.C. Civil No. 91-02092)
Before: Becker, Alito, and Roth, Circuit Judges
Michael J. Elkin, a prisoner at New Jersey's Bayside State Prison, was found guilty and sanctioned for a disciplinary infraction based on a drug test that indicated the presence of opiates in a sample of his urine. Elkin then filed this action in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the Prison Administrator, and the hearing officer who presided at his disciplinary proceeding. The district court found the defendants in civil contempt, holding that the chain-of-custody form used by the prison in connection with the collection and testing of Elkin's sample did not comply with previous district court orders. The court ordered that all sanctions against Elkin be vacated and that the Commissioner pay Elkin a compensatory fine. Because it is apparent that the defendants' failure to comply with the technical requirements of the prior orders had no effect on Elkin, we reverse.
A. In order to understand the present case it is necessary to examine several previous cases in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey concerning procedures for ensuring the accuracy of drug tests administered to state prisoners. In 1984, in Denike v. Fauver, Civ. Action No. 83-2737 (D.N.J. filed May 14, 1984), a class of inmate plaintiffs and New Jersey officials entered into a consent decree specifying detailed drug testing procedures; these procedures are now embodied in state regulations, N.J. Admin. Code tit. 10A § 3-5.9 to 5.11. For present purposes, only one provision of the consent decree is significant. This provision states that after a urine sample is collected it must be placed in a refrigerator and the officer who receives custody of the urine sample shall make a written record of the date and time he received the sample, the officer from whom it was received, and the date and time of its placement into the evidence locker and/or locked refrigerator.
App. at 159. See also N.J. Admin. Code tit. 10A § 3-5.10(c)(2).
After the Denike consent decree, prisoners who failed drug tests began filing section 1983 suits claiming that the procedures set out in the decree had not been followed. In one such case, Duffy v. Fauver, Civ. Action No. 90-1450 (D.N.J. filed Sept. 24, 1990), the district court held that the chain-of-custody form used by the Department of Corrections (Form 172-I -- "Continuity of Evidence -- Urine Specimen Form") did not comply with the above quoted provision of the decree. This form, the same one used in the present case, contains spaces for recording the names of (a) the corrections officer who witnesses the voiding, (b) the officer who places the sample in the "satellite" refrigerator (i.e., the refrigerator near the prison unit where the sample was voided), (c) the officer who removes the sample from the satellite refrigerator, (d) the officer who places the sample in the main prison evidence refrigerator, (e) the officer who removes the sample from that refrigerator, (f) the officer who transports the sample to the department laboratory, (g) the officer who receives the sample at the department laboratory, (h) the officer who transports the sample from the department laboratory to a private laboratory for confirmatory testing, and (i) the person who receives the sample at the private laboratory. The district court faulted this form, however, because it lacks spaces for the names of the officers who transport a sample from the place of voiding to the satellite refrigerator and from the satellite refrigerator to the main refrigerator. Thus, if officer A collects a sample, officer B takes the sample from A and carries it to the satellite refrigerator, and officer C takes the sample from B and places it in the refrigerator, officer B would have no place on the form to sign his name. The court therefore entered an order in late September 1990 requiring the defendants in that case to revise the form "to add a space for identification of the officer from whom a urine sample is received when it is placed in the evidence refrigerator." Duffy at 12.
The Department of Corrections prepared such a revised form by December 1990 but, as the district court explained, this matter "was lost in the bureaucratic shuffle and the form was not ultimately revised until early summer 1991." Elkin v. Fauver, Civ. Action No. 91-2092 (D.N.J. filed Sept. 27, 1991) at 7. In the meantime, the events giving rise to the present case took place.
B. On March 12, 1991, a syringe was found in a common area of cottage 3 at Bayside State Prison. As a result, Elkin and the other prisoners assigned to that cottage were ordered to provide urine samples for drug testing. All of the significant events that followed were recorded on a copy of Form 172-I. In addition, these events were confirmed by testimony at trial before the district court.
At 7:23 p.m. on March 14, Officer Murray witnessed Elkin's voiding of the sample. Officer Murray and Elkin both signed spaces on the form indicating that Murray had closed, sealed, and labeled the jar in Elkin's presence. Officer Murray then put the jar in a plastic bag and heat sealed the jar. At 7:30 p.m., Officer Murray placed the sample in the satellite refrigerator.
After completing the process of collecting samples from the other inmates in the cottage, Officer Murray removed the sealed bag containing Elkin's sample from the satellite refrigerator. He then took the sample to the main evidence refrigerator and placed it in that refrigerator at 10:25 p.m.
On March 20 at 7:40 a.m., the sample was removed from the refrigerator by another corrections official, and at 8:50 a.m. the sample was taken to the Department laboratory, where it arrived at 12:00 p.m. Tests performed at the Department laboratory yielded positive results. On April 3, the sample was removed from the Department laboratory at 5:40 p.m. and taken ...