September 22, 2009
RONNIE SNYDER, APPELLANT,
NEW JERSEY 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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 August 12, 2009
Before Judges Rodríguez and LeWinn.
Ronnie Snyder, an inmate at New Jersey State Prison, appeals from a final agency decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC), imposing disciplinary sanctions upon him for committing prohibited act *.004, fighting with another person, and *.306, conduct which disrupts or interferes with the orderly running of the correctional institution. N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a). We affirm.
These are the material facts. On August 16, 2008, Senior Correction Officers T. Wilson and E. Smith saw inmates Snyder and Miller throwing punches at each other's heads and upper bodies. A Code 33, alerting other officers to an emergency or call, was called. The Code 33 caused the 2A gym movement to be cancelled for the evening.
The following day, both inmates were served with the same disciplinary charges. Sergeant N. Tyson conducted an investigation regarding the infractions. Snyder pled not guilty to the infraction, stating with regard to the *.004 charge that, "I was defending myself." Snyder did not make a statement with regard to the *.306 charge.
A disciplinary hearing officer granted Snyder's request for the assistance of a counsel substitute. At the hearing, Snyder pled not guilty to the charges, stating, "I don't get in trouble. [Miller] wanted to fight." Snyder's counsel substitute also stated that "the other guy took a swing at Snyder. He [Snyder] only defended himself. He has the right to defend himself."
Snyder did not make any statements regarding the *.306 charge. He did not request any witnesses for either charge. He declined the hearing officer's offer to confront adverse witnesses. The hearing officer found Snyder guilty of committing prohibited act *.004 and noted:
SCO Wilson reports Snyder and Miller fought, exchanging punches. Snyder pleads not guilty, claiming self-defense. It is noted that both combatants claim they acted in self-defense. Staff observations clearly show the two inmates fought. I can see no reason to doubt their observations. Charge upheld.
With regard to the *.306 charge, the hearing officer found the following:
Sgt. Berry reports that Snyder's actions [fighting] caused an institutional disruption. Due to the [Inmates'] actions, the 2A gym movement was cancelled. Inmate pleaded not guilty. Staff reports clearly show the inmate did disrupt an institutional function. Charge upheld.
The hearing officer recommended the following sanctions: fifteen days detention, with credit for time served; 180 days administrative segregation; and 180 days loss of commutation time. The hearing officer explained that the sanctions were necessary "to deter fights -- inmates' actions caused a disruption in the institution."
Snyder appealed. Assistant Superintendent James Drumm upheld the findings of the hearing officer and imposed the recommended sanctions. Drumm noted that:
There was substantial credible evidence to sustain the findings of the Hearing Officer. Both combatants claimed self defense. There were no eyewitnesses as to who the aggressor was in the fight. Leniency not warranted.
On appeal, Snyder contends:
THE APPELLANT SUBMITS THAT WHEN THE HEARING OFFICER ALLOWS BOTH PARALEGALS TO REMAIN IN THE COURTLINE ROOM AT THE SAME TIME WHO ARE REPRESENTING TWO DIFFERENT INMATES SUCH AS FIGHTING UNDER THE SAME OFFENSE THE HEARING PROCESS BECOMES CONTAMINATED AND ARBITRARY WHEN THE DEFENSE STRATEGIES BECOME KNOWN TO THE OTHER PARALEGAL VIOLATING HIS RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS OF LAW.
The allegation focuses on the fact that Miller's counsel substitute remained in the hearing room during Snyder's testimony. We find no violation of Snyder's procedural due process right although Miller's counsel substitute was present in the hearing room. Indeed, Snyder points to no authority for his proposition.
For the sake of efficiency, conducting two hearings concurrently for inmates charged with fighting is appropriate.
Moreover, here, there is substantial, credible evidence of Snyder's (and Miller's) guilt. Both inmates were engaged in throwing punches at each other's heads and upper bodies. Although neither officer witnessed who initiated the fight, both inmates were engaged in the prohibited conduct. There was no testimony that Snyder stopped fighting when the officers arrived at the scene.
The adjudication of guilt is supported by "substantial" evidence. McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188, 195 (1995); Jacobs v. Stephens, 139 N.J. 212, 222-23 (1995); Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 523-24 (1975); codified at N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a). The substantial evidence standard permits an agency to apply its expertise where the evidence supports more than one conclusion. In re Vineland Chem. Co., 243 N.J. Super. 285, 307 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 127 N.J. 323 (1990). "Where there is substantial evidence in the record to support more than one regulatory conclusion, 'it is the agency's choice which governs.'" Id. at 307 (quoting De Vitis v. New Jersey Racing Comm'n., 202 N.J. Super. 484, 491 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 102 N.J. 337 (1985)).
We conclude that the DOC's action was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. The agency's ruling should not be disturbed. See In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999); Barone v. Dept. of Human Servs., 210 N.J. Super. 276, 285 (App. Div. 1986), aff'd, 107 N.J. 355 (1987).
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