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Harris v. Dep't of Corrections

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 14, 2009

FAYYAADH HARRIS, 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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 June 8, 2009

Before Judges Carchman and Parrillo.

This is a prison disciplinary appeal. Fayyaadh Harris, an inmate currently confined at New Jersey State Prison, appeals a Department of Corrections (DOC) determination, after administrative proceedings, finding that he committed prohibited act *.004, fighting with another person, and prohibited act *.306, conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the correctional facility, in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a). He argues that the finding of guilt was not supported by substantial credible evidence; that he was denied due process; and that the consecutive sanctions were unconstitutionally excessive. We disagree, and affirm.

The evidence established that on April 18, 2008, at 5:37 p.m., a fight erupted in the inmate dining room (IDR or mess hall). The altercation, which lasted about eight minutes, was witnessed by Sergeant White, Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) Stalling and Corrections Officer Recruit (COR) Sebastian, all of whom identified Harris as one of the participants. The incident was also videotaped. Although blurry, the first tape showed a wide angle view of the mess hall, and inmates Feagans and Mathis are seen exchanging punches for several minutes, stopping and then continuing to fight. That same tape also reveals several smaller groups of inmates fighting with each other. SCO Campbell, a housing officer who worked on the housing unit to which Harris was assigned, viewed this videotape and positively identified Harris as one of the participants engaged in the fighting that broke out among the inmates in the smaller groups.*fn1

The fracas prompted additional officers to respond to the mess hall to quell the disturbance. Harris and several others involved in the fighting were removed from the mess hall, cleared for placement in pre-hearing detention by medical staff, and escorted to 1-left. The remaining inmates were strip searched, examined for evidence of fighting and released back to their cells. A "Code 33" was called. Consequently, all institutional movements were halted, and all programs and activities for the inmate population were cancelled for the remainder of the evening.

The next day, April 19, 2008, Harris was notified of the charges against him, and an investigation of the incident was conducted. Harris requested assistance of counsel substitute and, because the charges were deemed to have merit, were referred to courtline for a hearing. After several postponements, occasioned, in part, by Harris' request for confrontation of the officers, a hearing was conduced by Hearing Officer Maniscalco. The hearing officer reviewed the videotapes as well as officers' disciplinary and special incident reports, including those of SCOs Stalling and Campbell, detailing eyewitness accounts of the physical altercation. Harris provided a written statement denying his involvement in the fight. In addition, counsel substitute argued that the videotape was not clear enough to identify Harris as a participant in the fight, and that Harris suffered no injuries as a result of the fight.

While acknowledging the poor quality of the videotape, the hearing officer relied upon the eyewitness reports and confrontation testimony, which corroborated the fighting charge against Harris. In adjudicating Harris guilty of *.004, the hearing officer concluded:

[b]ased on the evidence presented it is reasonable to conclude that inmate Harris was involved in a fighting episode in the IDR of NJSP. Officer Stalling[s] provided an eyewitness report stating that he, while assigned to the front cage in the Mess Hall[,] observed inmate Harris along with several other inmates throwing punches at each other in a large group. SCO Sebastian SCO Campbell and Sgt. White confirmed the positive identification of inmate Harris as one of the combatants in the mess hall at the time of the incident.

Therefore[,] based on the evidence presented as well as the testimony of the witnesses during confrontations and a review of the videotapes[,] there is substantial evidence to support the charge.

In adjudicating Harris guilty of the *.306 charge, the hearing officer reasoned:

[t]he actions of inmate Harris significantly contributed to the escalation of the incident necessitating the facility to be locked down for an extended period of time and therefore disrupted the safety, security and normal operations of the institution.

Therefore[,] based on the evidence presented as well as testimony of the witnesses during confrontations and a review of the videotapes[,] there is substantial evidence to support the charge.

For these infractions, the hearing officer recommended consecutive sanctions of 15 days' detention, with credit for time served, 365 days' administrative segregation, 365 days' loss of commutation time and 30 days' loss of recreation privileges. In imposing these sanctions, the hearing officer cited Harris' prior disciplinary record and the serious nature of the charge, and reasoned that the sanctions were necessary "to deter I/M from disrupting the facility."

Harris administratively appealed the decision of the hearing officer, which was upheld. This appeal follows in which Harris raises the following issues:

I. THE FINAL DECISION OF THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS SHOULD BE VACATED INASMUCH AS APPELLANT WAS DENIED HIS DUE PROCESS RIGHTS WHEN HEARING OFFICER FOUND APPELLANT GUILTY OF INFRACTION CONTRARY TO N.J.A.C. TIT. 10:4-9.15 AND WAS VIOLATIVE OF APPELLANT'S DUE PROCESS AND EQUAL PROTECTION RIGHTS AS GUARANTEED BY THE NEW JERSEY CONSTITUTION AND THE SIXTH AND FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS OF THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION.

II. TWO SEPARATE SANCTIONS ARISING OUT OF SAME CONDUCT IS EXCESSIVE AND CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT IN VIOLATION OF THE 8TH AMENDMENT UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION AND THE DOUBLE JEOPARDY CLAUSE OF THE NEW JERSEY CONSTITUTION AND SHOULD BE MODIFIED.

Our role in reviewing the decision of an administrative agency is limited. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). We will no upset the determination of an administrative agency absent a showing it was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable; that it lacked fair support in the evidence; or that it violated legislative policies. In re Musick, 143 N.J. 206, 216 (1996); Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980); Campbell v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963). Further, decisions of administrative agencies carry with them a presumption of reasonableness. City of Newark v. Natural Res. Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S.Ct. 400, 66 L.Ed. 2d 245 (1980).

After reviewing the record in light of the governing standards and the arguments advanced by the parties, we conclude that the issues presented by Harris are without sufficient merit to warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) and (E). The agency's decision is supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record, Henry, supra, 81 N.J. at 580, and Harris was provided adequate due process protections in the filing, processing and hearing of the charge against him. See Jacobs v. Stephens, 139 N.J. 212 (1995); Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 525-33 (1975).

We are also satisfied that the consecutive sanctions were neither excessive nor double punishment. While both charges arose out of the same incident, each was based on different considerations and separate evidence. Specifically, as a result of his direct participation in fighting, Harris was charged with prohibited act *.004, while the *.306 charge was predicated on the aftermath of the overall disturbance of which Harris was a part, namely the corresponding disruption to institutional movements and ultimate lockdown of the prison. Considering the prison-wide consequences to Harris' original misconduct, as well as his institutional record, we find no abuse of discretion in the consecutive sanctions imposed.

Affirmed.


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