Before Judges King, Lintner and Reisner. On appeal from the Department of Corrections.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reisner, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: January 28, 2004
Appellant, who has been civilly committed to the Department of Corrections (DOC) Northern Regional Unit (NRU) as a sexually violent predator pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24 to -27.38, challenges as unconstitutional a DOC policy that requires periodic random searches of the NRU residents' rooms. We hold that the policy is constitutional.
On May 28, 2002, R.M. filed a verified complaint and order to show cause in the Law Division asserting that his constitutional and statutory rights were violated by a March 11, 2000, warrantless search of his room and locked footlocker at the Northern Regional Unit (NRU), a Department of Corrections (DOC) facility in Kearney, Hudson County. The NRU is used exclusively to house residents civilly committed pursuant to the Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA), which provides that such units must be"secure" facilities and must be operated by the DOC. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.26, -27.34.
R.M. alleged that the search was conducted pursuant to a DOC policy that required staff to randomly search at least two residents' rooms per day during the first and second shift. He also alleged that his room had been searched previously pursuant to the policy. He sought a declaration that the policy was unconstitutional. He also sought injunctive relief and damages.
The State moved for summary judgment. Judge D'Italia, correctly perceiving the lawsuit as a challenge to the policy of a State administrative agency, ordered that the matter be transferred to this court pursuant to R. 2:2-3 and denied the summary judgment motion for lack of trial court jurisdiction.
Based upon the record before Judge D'Italia, we conclude that the facts are not in dispute and that the record is sufficient to permit us to decide this case as an appeal from the final action or rule of a State administrative agency. R. 2:2-3(a)(2).
On August 24, 2001, R.M. was committed to the Special Treatment Unit (STU) at the NRU as a sexually violent predator in need of involuntary civil commitment.*fn1 By statute, the DOC is responsible for the operation of the facility, N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.34(a), and it is staffed by DOC corrections officers. The Division of Mental Health Services in the Department of Human Services (DHS) provides treatment for persons committed to the STU. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.34(b).
R.M. had been a resident of the STU since December 20, 2000. He lived in a room that had been assigned for his exclusive use. The room contained his personal and legal files and a footlocker which he used to store his clothing. He was able to lock the room from the inside and could also lock it from the outside when he left.
On different occasions, the room had been searched by Corrections Officers Singletary, Torres, and other officers. R.M. alleged in his certification that his room was searched by Officer Singletary on March 11, 2002, with R.M. present. On one occasion when Officer Torres conducted a search, the officer examined R.M.'s files, required him to open a sealed envelope that contained postage stamps, dumped out his laundry bag and examined his clothes. R.M. was also required to open the combination lock on his footlocker, so the officer could search the locker.
When R.M. questioned the authority for the searches, he was shown a copy of the"Resident Handbook" dated March 22, 2000, which stated:"Searches of rooms and the unit will be conducted regularly and are at the discretion of the Ranking DOC Officer or Supervisor." The NRU's room search policy is also set forth in Custody Directive 6, effective August 1, 1999. The directive, which ...