December 10, 2007
JAMAL HARDEN, APPELLANT,
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 8, 2007
Before Judges Axelrad and Sapp-Peterson.
This is a prison disciplinary appeal. Jamal Harden, an inmate currently confined at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, appeals a final determination of the Department of Corrections (DOC) finding him guilty of a drug-related disciplinary infraction. We affirm.
On March 19, 2006, corrections officers were en route to search the cell of Inmate Hawley. As they approached Hawley's cell, the officers observed Hawley walking towards them with a cooler. The officers stopped Hawley and confiscated the cooler, in which they found small pieces of white paper, a roll of tape, and a piece of paper containing a brown powder substance that officers suspected was a controlled dangerous substance (CDS). As this event was unfolding, Harden approached the officers and told them the cooler belonged to him. Harden was charged with disciplinary infraction *.203,*fn1 "possession or introduction of any prohibited substances such as drugs, intoxicants or related paraphernalia not prescribed for the inmate by the medical or dental staff," N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1.
Harden was served with the charge and an investigation commenced. Harden pleaded guilty to the charge, did not request an opportunity to make any further statements, and did not request any witness statements or an opportunity to confront any witnesses. The investigating officer determined that the charge had merit and forwarded the matter for a departmental hearing.
The hearing officer postponed a number of hearing dates pending the receipt of a certified copy of the laboratory (lab) report from the New Jersey State Police Office of Forensic Sciences (State Police) as well as at the request of Harden to prepare a defense. The lab tests were completed on May 22, 2006, and received by the institution on June 6, 2006. The results confirmed that the suspected CDS seized was heroin. Harden pleaded guilty to the charge and provided a signed statement to the hearing officer stating that he "[was] taking full responsibility for the drugs that was in the blue cooler that inmate Hawley . . . was apprehended with." The hearing officer adjudicated Harden guilty of the charge and imposed sanctions of a fifteen-day detention, a 300-day administrative segregation, a 300-day loss of commutation credit, permanent loss of contact visits, and 365 days of urine monitoring.
Harden administratively appealed the finding and sanctions imposed, raising, among other arguments, his claim that the lab report appeared altered and that there was cross-contamination of the CDS confiscated from his cooler with CDS seized in an unrelated matter when the drugs were sent together to the lab for testing. The adjudication and sanctions were upheld by the DOC's assistant superintendent. Harden's timely appeal followed.
On appeal, Harden raises the following points for our consideration:
THE DECISION OF THE HEARING OFFICER VIOLATES DUE PROCESS AND THEREFORE, SHOULD BE VACATED.
(a) THE DECISION OF THE HEARING OFFICER SHOULD BE VACATED BECAUSE THE DETERMINATION WAS NOT BASED ON SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE AND APPELLANT'S INITIAL PLEA HAD BEEN WITHDRAWN.
(b) THE DECISION SHOULD BE VACATD BECAUSE THERE EXIST[S] A HIGHLY REASONABLE SUSPICION THAT THERE WAS A PROBABLE CROSS CONTAMINATION OF THE CDS RELATING TO THE FIRST DISCOVERY, WITH THAT OF THE SECOND DISCOVERY.
(c) THE FAILURE OF PRISON AUTHORITIES TO PROVIDE A VALID LAB REPORT TO SUPPORT THEIR DETERMINATION, VIOLATES DUE PROCESS.
After carefully reviewing the record, we are satisfied that Harden's arguments are without sufficient merit to warrant extensive discussion in this opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) and (E). The final administrative decision issued by the DOC is supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record. See Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). We add only the following.
N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a) requires that "[a] finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing shall be based upon substantial evidence that the inmate has committed a prohibited act." See also Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 530 (1975) (requiring that there be substantial evidence to support an inmate disciplinary sanction). In reviewing an administrative decision to determine whether it is based upon substantial evidence, our appellate role is limited. We cannot substitute our judgment for that of the agency where its findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Henry, supra, 81 N.J. at 579-80.
Here, on March 19, 2006, Harden voluntarily stepped forward at the time correction officers seized the cooler from Hawley and acknowledged that the suspected CDS confiscated was his. Subsequently, on May 3, 2006, he submitted a written defense argument to the hearing officer, requesting that "the charges lodged against him -- with the exception of what was found in the ice chest -- be dismissed." On June 7, 2006, he provided the hearing officer with his June 2, 2006 written statement in which he challenged the charge that he possessed suspected CDS found amongst his clothing, but once again acknowledged that on "March 19, 2006 [he] had [come] forth and made a self admission, indicating my-self [sic] to be responsible for drugs that have been confiscated off of another inmate[.]" Although by the June 7, 2006 departmental hearing Harden purportedly suspected cross-contamination between CDS seized from his cooler and suspected CDS seized in an unrelated matter, he proceeded to plead guilty to the charge of possessing CDS in his cooler.
His claim that the drugs were cross-contaminated was unsubstantiated. Moreover, even if the drugs were somehow cross-contaminated when shipped to the State Police lab for testing, Harden's repeated admissions that the contraband in the cooler was CDS that belonged to him were proof he committed the prohibited act without the necessity of any confirmatory testing from the lab.