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Bennett v. New Jersey Dep't of Corrections


June 13, 2008


On appeal from a final decision of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 28, 2008

Before Judges Skillman and Winkelstein.

Appellant, Al'mustafa Bennett, is an inmate at Northern State Prison. At the times relevant to this appeal, he was incarcerated at South Woods State Prison. He is serving a fifteen-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a victim under thirteen years of age. He appeals from a final decision of the New Jersey Department of Corrections entered on February 22, 2007, in which he was found guilty of disciplinary infractions *.002, assault, and *.306, conduct that disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of a correctional facility. The agency imposed an aggregate fifteen days detention, 365 days administrative segregation, and 365 days loss of commutation credit.

On appeal, appellant claims that the evidence did not support the guilty adjudications. He argues that the witnesses' statements were contradictory and showed "obvious signs of false testimony." He further claims that his hearing was not timely held, and there were "pictures taken" and "reports made" that were not submitted into evidence. Appellant also asserts that his injuries were ignored by the hearing officer.

The incident that led to the charges occurred on February 4, 2007, when, according to the evidence, appellant became agitated after being confronted by a senior corrections officer about his cell not being clean. Officer Sahms reported that he witnessed appellant "aggressively and quickly exit his cell . . . and with his right fist assault Officer Cortes by striking him in the chest." Officer Jones indicated that appellant, upon leaving his cell, approached Officer Cortes "in an aggressive manner" and "struck Officer Cortes in the chest area." Officer Mott observed appellant aggressively move towards Officers Jones and Cortes. Officer Cortes, the victim, indicated in his report that appellant aggressively approached him and struck him in the chest.

The officers asserted that appellant was combative, kicking his legs and swinging his head in an attempt to strike the staff. Ultimately, appellant was placed in leg irons.

Following the incident, appellant was taken to a holding cell and was subsequently examined by medical staff, who observed that he had several lacerations. He was then taken to the South Jersey Regional Medical Center for evaluation. Three staff members were injured during this incident.

As a result of the incident, the facility cancelled two gym periods and mess movement was delayed for thirty-five minutes.

The following day, appellant was served with the charges. The hearing began on February 7, 2007, within seventy-two hours of appellant's placement in prehearing detention, but was postponed as a result of appellant's transfer to another institution. It was concluded on February 9, 2007. The hearing officer found substantial evidence to support the charges.

Our scope of review is limited. We will reverse an agency's decision only when that decision is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or unsupported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980); see also In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999).

The eyewitness reports received by the hearing officer indicate that the corrections officers observed appellant strike Officer Cortes in the chest. The hearing officer was entitled to credit the eyewitness reports submitted by the corrections officers. No dispute exists that the corrections facility was required to cancel two gym periods and delay mess movement as a result of the incident. While there were some discrepancies among the officers' reports, the material facts were consistent. The hearing officer was entitled to rely on those facts, which constitute substantial credible evidence to support the hearing officer's adjudications of guilt. Put simply, the disciplinary infractions convictions were supported by substantial evidence in the record. Henry v. Rahway State Prison, supra, 81 N.J. at 579-80.

Nor was appellant denied his due process rights. He was provided with a counsel substitute. He was given an opportunity to confront witnesses, but declined. He presented the statement of another inmate in his defense. Although there was a short delay from the date of the incident until the hearing date, the delay was reasonable in light of the investigation and the transfer of appellant to another prison facility.



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