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Williams v. Dep't of Corrections

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


April 6, 2009

RYAN WILLIAMS, APPELLANT,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.

On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted January 26, 2009

Before Judges Lisa and Sapp-Peterson.

Ryan Williams, an inmate currently at South Woods State Prison,*fn1 appeals from a final determination of the Department of Corrections (Department) affirming an adjudication of guilt on disciplinary charge *.004, fighting with another person. N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a). We affirm.

The record discloses that on November 10, 2007, Senior Corrections Officer Patrick Natale (Natale) witnessed Williams fighting Inmate Albert Cortes in Williams' cell. The inmates were separated and subsequently issued *.004 charges and placed in pre-hearing detention. The next day Williams was officially served with the charge and an investigation ensued. Williams elected to reserve providing a statement at the disciplinary hearing and did not request the production of any witnesses. At the hearing, Williams claimed self-defense. Cortes' statement was introduced, and in the statement he contended that Williams provoked the confrontation. Williams did not make a statement, nor did he introduce any evidence. At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing officer concluded that Williams used more force than was necessary to defend himself and that he could have called for help. The hearing officer imposed a sanction of fifteen days detention, a 185-day loss of commutation credit, 185 days in administrative segregation, and a 15-day loss of recreation privileges. Williams appealed the hearing officer's decision to the Administrator, who upheld the initial determination.

Williams raises the following points for our consideration on appeal:

POINT I

I HAVE A LEGAL RIGHT TO A[N] ADVERS[A]RIAL DIS[CI]PLINARY HEARING, WITH ALL OF THE PROTECTIONS AS AFFORDED BY AVANT V. CLIFFORD AND PROGENY.

POINT II

I HAVE A RIGHT TO CONFRONT MY ACCUSER IN AN ADVERSARIAL SETTING.

POINT III

THE REPORTS FILED BY THE DOC ARE ILLEGIBLE, AND I HAVE A RIGHT TO READ THE REPORTS OF THE HEARING OFFICER.

POINT IV

I HAVE A RIGHT TO CLAIM SELF[-]DEFENSE, AND THIS DEFENSE MUST BE CONSIDERED BY THE HEARING OFFICER.

POINT V

THE HEARING OFFICER COMMITTED MISCONDUCT [AND] THEN MISREPRESENTED THE FACTS PRESENTED PURPOSELY, THEREBY DENYING MY CIVIL RIGHTS TO A FAIR AND JUST HEARING.

After carefully reviewing the record, we are satisfied that Williams' arguments are without sufficient merit to warrant extensive discussion in this opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D)-(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.

Prison disciplinary hearings are not part of a criminal prosecution, and the full spectrum of rights due to a criminal defendant does not apply. See Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 521-22 (1975). However, prisoners are entitled to limited procedural protections prior to being subjected to disciplinary sanctions. Those sanctions are articulated in Avant, id. at 525-33, and have been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188, 192 (1995). We are satisfied, after a thorough review of the record, that the Avant/McDonald procedural protections were met and that Williams was offered all of the procedural protections to which he was due.

Williams received notice of the charges against him at least twenty-four hours before the hearing. The matter was promptly investigated. The hearing was conducted by a member of the Department's Central Office staff, rather than by a South Woods staff member. Pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.12, an inmate charged with an asterisk offense must be afforded counsel substitute. Because the charge against Williams was an asterisk offense, he was afforded the assistance of counsel substitute upon his request. Through his counsel substitute, he raised a claim of self-defense, but then declined the opportunity to call witnesses on his behalf. Similarly, he was offered the opportunity to confront adverse witnesses but also declined to do so.

Although Williams raises the denial of his procedural due process rights in the present appeal, in his administrative appeal, his argument for dismissal of the charge was limited to his claim of self-defense and a plea for leniency. Williams' subsequent "re-appeal" alleged, in addition to self-defense and a plea for leniency, misinterpretation of the facts and a claim that Cortes received a lesser sanction.

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, supra, 67 N.J. at 530 (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. It is not our function to determine the credibility of witnesses or weigh the evidence once that function has been completed by the agency. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999); In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999); Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965).

Here, both men were exchanging fisticuffs, leading the hearing officer to conclude that since Williams did not call for help, he was a willing participant in the altercation, which caused serious injuries to the other inmate. We are satisfied there is substantial credible evidence that Williams committed the prohibited act and discern no basis for our intervention.

Affirmed.


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