On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 9, 2009
Before Judges Stern and Sabatino.
Steven C. Gaddy, an inmate at the Northern State Prison, appeals various disciplinary sanctions imposed upon him by the Department of Corrections for committing prohibited act *.008, "abuse/cruelty to animals," in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a).
The record shows that on October 29, 2008, the Special Operations Group at the prison undertook a search of various cells in 2-Wing, including appellant's. To assist in the search, the corrections officers used a canine named Charlie, who is specially trained to detect cell phones. After Charlie went into appellant's cell, he started to eat some red meat located on the floor under the sink and toilet. A sergeant noticed that the meat had red specks on it, and that it made a crunching sound while Charlie chewed it. The sergeant immediately pulled the dog away. His two supervising officers on the scene believed that the red specks were rat poison. Various items were then seized from appellant's cell, including a sock that contained a cell phone.*fn1
Charlie was taken to a local veterinarian, Dr. Ira Niedweske, who pumped the dog's stomach. Fortunately, Charlie survived. In a written report, dated November 20, 2008, Dr. Niedweske confirmed that Charlie had been admitted to the veterinary hospital "after ingesting rat poison that was mixed into ground meat."
Appellant was charged with committing prohibited act *.008. At the ensuing disciplinary hearing, appellant's counsel substitute initially raised a potential defense that appellant had possessed the poisoned meat to kill rodents in his cell without any intent to harm the canine. However, appellant chose not to pursue such a defense of innocent possession when the hearing officer indicated that the charges could be amended to a charge of *.155, prohibiting the "adulteration of any food or drink." Appellant then claimed at his hearing that there was no proof that he had been in possession of the adulterated meat or responsible for the meat being left in or near the cell. The hearing officer rejected those claims and found appellant guilty. The hearing officer imposed sanctions of 365 days of administrative segregation, fifteen days of detention, 365 days of lost commutation time, and restitution in the amount of $487.50, representing one-half of the veterinary bill. The hearing officer also recommended that the conduct be referred to the prosecutor.*fn2
Appellant was unsuccessful in pursuing internal avenues of administrative review within the Department of Corrections, and this appeal ensued. Appellant argues that there was no evidence of the rat poison presented at his hearing and no toxicology analyses. He also argues that the Department failed to prove any intent on his part to harm the canine, urging that he was unaware that the canine search was going to take place that day.
The Department of Corrections has "broad discretionary powers" to promulgate and enforce disciplinary regulations aimed at maintaining security and order inside correctional facilities. Jenkins v. Fauver, 108 N.J. 239, 252 (1987). Moreover, courts recognize that "[p]risons are dangerous places, and the courts must afford appropriate deference and flexibility to administrators trying to manage this volatile environment." Russo v. N.J. Dept. of Corr., 324 N.J. Super. 576, 584 (App. Div. 1999). Specially-trained canines such as Charlie are an important part of those security measures, as they can readily locate contraband within the prison that may pose a threat to the facility and the corrections staff.
Although the genesis of prohibited act *.008 is not set forth explicitly in the New Jersey Administrative Code, the provision obviously is aimed at thwarting abusive inmate conduct that could threaten the use of canines for security purposes within the facility. The provision also sensibly proscribes cruel behavior by inmates directed at any animals that may be present within the institution. That might include, for example, a seeing-eye dog that accompanies a visitor, or a stray cat that makes its way into the mess hall. Such a prohibition on cruel behavior also corresponds with the goals of rehabilitation of convicted persons, as well as the deterrence of future inappropriate conduct.
Our standard of review of appellant's guilty finding and the resulting sanctions is limited. Given the delegated administrative functions and expertise of the Department of Corrections, we customarily sustain its disciplinary decisions where they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Jacobs v. Stephens, 139 N.J. 212, 222 (1995). The record here provides such ample proofs, including the officers' observations of the red-specked meat, the surrounding context in which a canine search of the cell could have been readily anticipated, and Dr. Niedweske's report. There was no need for the Department to present a toxicology report, given Dr. Niedweske's written notation that the dog had ingested poisoned meat.
Moreover, nothing in the regulation requires proof of a specific intent to harm the animal. In any event, such a malicious intent can be circumstantially inferred here from the surrounding context of the cell search, one in which an illegal device was in fact uncovered.
Lastly, we detect no violation of appellant's qualified constitutional right to procedural fairness in the manner in which his hearing was conducted, at which he was assisted by a counsel substitute and for which he was afforded a chance to request cross-examination and to testify himself. See Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 528-32 ...