April 25, 2008
JOHN HAYNES, APPELLANT,
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from a Final Decision of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 2, 2008
Before Judges Wefing and Lyons.
John Haynes (Haynes), an inmate currently incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison (EJSP), appeals from a final administrative decision rendered by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) imposing disciplinary sanctions on him for violating N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a) *.004, fighting with another person, and N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a) *.002, assaulting any person. Haynes is an out-of-state inmate serving a Pennsylvania sentence of life imprisonment for aggravated manslaughter, aggravated murder, possession of an instrument of a crime, and aggravated assault.
The following factual and procedural history is relevant to our consideration of the issues advanced on appeal. On May 9, 2007, Haynes arrived at EJSP after being transferred from New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. At EJSP, he came in contact with an inmate named Fuquan Craft (Craft) whom he had known and served time with while in Trenton.
On May 13, 2007, at approximately 12:45 p.m., Haynes was in the recreation yard. A conversation between Haynes and Craft occurred. The parties began to spar, punches were thrown, and both Haynes and Craft fell to the ground, while wrestling one another. Eventually, the altercation was broken up and Craft left the area. Most of this incident was captured on videotape.
Later that afternoon, Haynes was standing at the entrance to the yard exit cage. Corrections Officer Konopada (Konopada) witnessed Haynes strike Craft with a closed fist in the head. According to Konopada, Haynes continued punching Craft and ignored several orders to break up the fight. Eventually, a code was called, and both combatants were restrained. On the following day, Haynes was served with disciplinary charges alleging assault, while Craft was served with a disciplinary charge of fighting. On May 15, 2007, Haynes was also served with a disciplinary charge of fighting between Craft and him on May 13, 2007, arising out of the first incident.
On May 16, 2007, the first scheduled hearing was postponed so as to afford Haynes' counsel substitute more time to prepare. The disciplinary hearing was held on May 18, 2007. With respect to the first incident, Haynes argued that Craft initiated the altercation and that Craft has "special needs." Haynes further argued that he was merely defending himself and that he was attacked. Haynes identified six witnesses to the incident, including Craft. In addition to the witness statements submitted to the hearing officer after the incident, the hearing officer reviewed the videotape of the yard which recorded part of the incident. The hearing officer found that Haynes' statements regarding the other inmate's status as "special needs" to be inaccurate. The hearing officer determined that it was impossible, based upon the videotape, to determine which of the inmates initiated the fight, but he clearly found that "Haynes did not attempt to run from the fight, but continued to spar with Craft, continuing the fight." The hearing officer noted that Craft sustained significant injuries and concluded that there was substantial evidence that Haynes had engaged in fighting.
With respect to the assault charge arising out of the second incident on May 13, 2007, the hearing officer reviewed various correctional officers' reports, as well as statements from some inmates. The hearing officer noted that the inmates' statements were not taken by staff, but were produced by the inmate.
With respect to the hearing concerning the second incident on May 13, 2007, Haynes argued that he had been attacked without warning by Craft, and after he was hit, he merely swung back, grabbed Craft, and rolled on the ground. The hearing officer relied primarily on the testimony of Konopada whose testimony was that he saw Haynes hit Craft and continue to do so. Sergeant Rock-Asencio also provided information that he witnessed Haynes hitting Craft, but that Craft was not fighting back. The hearing officer found substantial evidence to adjudicate Haynes guilty of assault. A timely appeal was filed with the DOC. Following EJSP's associate administrator's upholding of the finding of guilty, but modifying the punishment, this appeal followed.
On appeal, Haynes presents the following arguments for our consideration:
A DUE PROCESS VIOLATION OCCURRED WHEN THE HEARING OFFICER FAILED TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE APPELLANT'S RIGHT TO DEFEND HIMSELF FROM ASSAULT IN THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE AND LIBERTY.
THE APPELLANT WAS DEPRIVED OF DUE PROCESS AND FAIRNESS WHEN THE HEARING OFFICER FAILED TO HONOR HIS REQUEST TO INVESTIGATE EVIDENCE PERTAINING TO INMATE CRAFT'S PSYCHIATRIC HISTORY.
THE HEARING OFFICER UNFAIRLY DEEMED OFFICER KONOPADA MORE CREDIBLE THAN THE APPELLANT AND HIS WITNESSES IN VIOLATION OF HIS RIGHT TO FAIR AND IMPARTIAL TREATMENT.
THE EVIDENCE PROFFERED WAS INSUFFICIENT AND FAILED TO SATISFY THE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE STANDARD REQUIRED TO SUPPORT A FINDING OF GUILT.
THE HEARING OFFICER'S DECISION WAS ARBITRARY, CAPRICIOUS AND VIOLATIVE OF THE APPELLANT'S RIGHT TO A FAIR AND IMPARTIAL HEARING.
Our courts have recognized that prisoners are entitled to certain due process rights. McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188, 194 (1995). In the context of an inmate facing disciplinary charges, those rights include:
(1) a written notice of the alleged violation; (2) a written statement of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action taken; (3) a right to call witnesses and a right to present documentary evidence, when doing so would not be unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals; and (4) a right to assistance from a counsel substitute where the inmate is illiterate or the issues too complex for the inmate to marshal an adequate defense. [Id. at 195.]
Our Supreme Court has further found that the DOC must structure a formal hearing to assure that a disciplinary finding will be based on verified facts and that any exercise of discretion will be informed by an accurate knowledge of the inmate's behavior. Ibid.
We have recognized that as part of the panoply of rights afforded inmates, in our state laws there exists a right for the inmate to proffer self-defense in response to charges for fighting and assault. DeCamp v. Dep't of Corr., 386 N.J. Super. 631, 639 (App. Div. 2006). We have held that when an inmate raises self-defense as an issue, the hearing officer must consider this defense and make specific findings in support of his decision. Id. at 640.
N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a) provides "a finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing shall be based upon substantial evidence that the inmate has committed a prohibited act." We have held that we may "not substitute our independent judgment for that of the board or agency where its findings are supported by substantial evidence, i.e., such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Mead Johnson & Co. v. S. Plainfield, 95 N.J. Super. 455, 467 (App. Div. 1967). Moreover, "[w]here there is substantial evidence in the record to support more than one regulatory conclusion, 'it is the agency's choice which governs.'" In re Vineland Chem. Co., 243 N.J. Super. 285, 307 (App. Div.) (quoting De Vitis v. New Jersey Racing Comm'n, 202 N.J. Super. 484, 491 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 102 N.J. 337 (1985)), certif. denied, 127 N.J. 323 (1990). These holdings are consistent with the Supreme Court's statement in Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980), which notes that "[c]courts have a limited role in reviewing a decision of an administrative agency. Ordinarily, an appellate court will reverse the decision of an administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole."
Haynes argues that his due process rights were violated when the hearing officer failed to acknowledge his right to defend himself from an assault. At the outset, we note that the hearing officer did not fail to acknowledge Haynes' right to assert self-defense. Rather, the hearing officer found that this affirmative right was not sustained by the proofs. In DeCamp, supra, 386 N.J. Super. at 640, we provided a hearing officer with four factors which could be used to determine if self-defense was a viable justification. We said that the hearing officer should determine: (1) who was the initial aggressor; (2) whether the force used to respond to the attack was reasonable; (3) whether the inmate claiming self-defense had a reasonable opportunity to avoid the confrontation by alerting prison authorities; and (4) any other factors that would make the use of force by the inmate claiming self-defense unreasonable, because it would interfere with or otherwise undermine the orderly administration of the prison.
As to the first incident, the hearing officer reviewed Haynes and Craft's statements, as well as the videotape. The hearing officer observed that it cannot be determined who initiated the fight, but that it was clear that Haynes did not attempt to run from the fight, continued to spar with Craft, continued to fight, and that Craft sustained significant injuries from the altercation. Hence, it is implicit from these findings that the hearing officer, while unable to determine who was the initial aggressor, concluded from the injuries that the force was not reasonable and that Haynes had a reasonable opportunity to avoid the incident.
With respect to the second incident, the hearing officer concluded that Haynes was the initiator based on the correction officer's testimony. Further, even if that were not the case, the hearing officer found that Haynes' force was not reasonable in that he continued to fight, going "beyond what was needed for self defense, as indicated by the officers' reports as well as the injuries sustained by Craft, if Craft had swung first." Consequently, we are satisfied that the hearing officer complied with the requirements set forth in DeCamp, and that having reviewed the witnesses' statements, the officers' reports, as well as the videotapes, there is substantial credible evidence to support the hearing officer's conclusion that the proofs defeated Haynes' claim of self-defense.
Haynes also asserts that he was denied the right to investigate Craft's psychiatric history. He points to N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.6 which permits a hearing officer to direct a further investigation if the hearing officer is of the opinion that the investigative reports do not sufficiently provide for a basic understanding of the incident. Haynes argues that Craft's psychiatric history is relevant in determining who was the initiator of the fight. Haynes argues that Craft was designated "special needs" at the time of the fight due to a psychiatric history. The hearing officer considered this argument and concluded that Craft had not been classified as "special needs" for the last two years. Furthermore, it is implicit that the hearing officer was satisfied with the investigative reports before him. What he had before him were straightforward issues: whether there was a fight and an assault; who started it; and whether the force used by Haynes allegedly in self-defense was reasonable. We do not find that the hearing officer's exercise of discretion not to pursue an investigation into Craft's psychiatric history to be an improper exercise of his discretion under the regulation. Further, given the facts and issues in this case, Craft's psychiatric history had marginal relevance at best.
Haynes also argues that the hearing officer unfairly found Officer Konopada's testimony more credible than Haynes and his witnesses. When an error in fact finding by an administrative agency is alleged, the scope of our review is limited. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656-57 (1999). We are to decide only whether the findings could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record giving due regard to the ability of the fact finder to judge credibility and where agency expertise is a factor to its expertise. Id. at 657. In this case, the hearing officer noted that the inmate witnesses' statements were not gathered by agency staff. Noting that in a prison situation, coercion can be often used to extract statements from fellow inmates, he approached these statements with some deserved skepticism. He found the officer's report, particularly concerning the level of force used by Haynes, to be credible and the other reports in the record supported that determination. We note there was nothing to prohibit Haynes from calling each of the witnesses who provided written statements to individually testify so that they could be questioned. He chose not to do so. We find no error in the credibility determinations of the hearing officer.
Haynes also argues that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of guilty on the charges. We have thoroughly reviewed the videotape, the officers' statements, the statements of Craft and Haynes, as well as the inmate witnesses. We have determined that there was more than sufficient credible evidence in the record for the determinations arrived at by the hearing officer. There are statements from the correction officers stating that Haynes, with a closed fist, attacked Craft. Haynes does not deny that he was fighting, but excuses it by saying it was in self-defense. We are satisfied that the hearing officer's determination, that the elements for self-defense were not supportable, was demonstrated by sufficient credible evidence in the record. We, therefore, find Haynes' self-defense argument unavailing.
Lastly, Haynes argues that the hearing officer's decision was arbitrary and capricious, and that since he was a Pennsylvania prisoner, its disciplinary rules should apply. Given our earlier statements, we find no merit in the argument that the hearing officer's determination is arbitrary or capricious. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) & (E). N.J.A.C. 10A:10-3.16(f) provides that inmates coming into the New Jersey prison system from an out-of-state prison are subject to New Jersey's disciplinary rules, except that any sanction providing for loss of commutation credits will not affect the terms and conditions of the sending state's sentence in excess of the amount provided for by the laws and regulations in that state. The DOC has informed Pennsylvania of the adjudication at issue and it will make whatever adjustment to sentence its laws provide. Consequently, Haynes' argument that Pennsylvania disciplinary rules apply has been addressed as to the sanctions. With respect to his implied argument that he not be subject to New Jersey prison regulations, we find that argument to be without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D).
For the reasons set forth above, the decision of the DOC is affirmed.
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