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Chavis v. New Jersey Dep't of Corrections


January 25, 2010


On appeal from a Final Determination of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted December 8, 2009

Before Judges Parrillo and Ashrafi.

Inmate Renaldo Chavis appeals sanctions imposed upon him by the Department of Corrections (DOC) for possession of material related to a gang. We affirm.

On November 25, 2008, corrections officers at Northern State Prison found three photographs in Chavis's cell that were allegedly related to a gang. Chavis was charged with disciplinary infraction *.011, possession or exhibition of anything related to a security threat group, in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1.

On December 12, 2008, DOC Investigator Howard of the Special Investigation Division, Intelligence Section, issued a report in which he concluded:

[I]t is clear that the pictures . . . represent the Security Threat Group (STG) "Crips". Specifically, the hand signs (Ws & Cs) being displayed by the individuals in the picture . . . is a known symbol of respect dedicated to the West Coast (Crips). Furthermore, the hand sign (Eight Three/83) being displayed . . . appears to signify the individual affiliation with a Crip set known as Eight Trey (83) Gangster.

At his disciplinary hearing on December 18, 2008, Chavis pleaded guilty to the charge of possessing the photographs but denied gang membership and claimed he was not familiar with the hand signs shown in the photographs. The hearing officer sentenced Chavis to fourteen hours of extra duty, twenty days' loss of recreation privileges, disposal of the contraband, ninety days' administrative segregation, and sixty days' loss of commutation time. The last two sanctions were suspended for sixty days, meaning that they would not be imposed if Chavis remained free of disciplinary charges for sixty days.

On Chavis's administrative appeal, the decision of the hearing officer was upheld by the prison administrator.

Before us, Chavis contends that he was denied due process because his conviction was not based on substantial evidence of his knowing possession of gang-related items. He claims that he is not a member of a gang and did not know that the hand signs depicted in the photographs were associated with a gang.

Our scope of review of prison disciplinary matters is limited. Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). We will defer to the agency's conclusions so long as the decision is not arbitrary or capricious and is supported by substantial credible evidence. Id. at 579. In particular, we defer to matters that lie within the special competence and expertise of an administrative agency. Brady v. Dep't of Pers., 149 N.J. 244, 256-57 (1997). "We cannot substitute our judgment for that of the agency where its findings are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record." Johnson v. Dep't of Corr., 375 N.J. Super. 347, 352 (App. Div. 2005).

The regulation prohibiting possession of security threat items does not require proof of either gang membership or knowledge of the relation of prohibited materials to a security threat group. Possession in itself is a violation, and Chavis does not dispute that he possessed the photographs.

Chavis cites Balagun v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 361 N.J.

Super. 199 (App. Div. 2003), to argue that the DOC's classification of the photographs as gang-related was "questionable." Unlike Balagun, however, Investigator Howard explained precisely which hand signs in the photographs were associated with the Crips and why. "[D]etermining whether prison materials are gang related constitutes a particular Department of Corrections' expertise . . . ." Id. at 202. When adequately explained, we defer to that expertise in classifying prohibited items. Ibid.

More important, Chavis pleaded guilty to possession of the items and cannot appeal the sufficiency of evidence to support the charge. Chavis contends that he was coerced into pleading guilty because the alternative would have been time spent in lock-up. The accused often must make a difficult choice between pleading guilty to receive more lenient treatment and invoking his right to have his culpability adjudicated through a hearing or trial. See Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357, 364, 98 S.Ct. 663, 668, 54 L.Ed. 2d 604, 611 (1978); Chaffin v. Stynchcombe, 412 U.S. 17, 31, 93 S.Ct. 1977, 1985, 36 L.Ed. 2d 714, 726 (1973). Chavis cannot gain the benefit of more favorable treatment by pleading guilty and then challenge the sufficiency of evidence to support the finding of guilt.

Chavis does not allege deviation from the procedural protections afforded inmates facing disciplinary hearings. See Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 525-39 (1975). The DOC relied upon a precise explanation of why the confiscated photographs were prohibited as items that were related to a security threat group. Chavis has not disputed Investigator Howard's report except to deny his own knowledge. He chose to plead guilty to avoid lock-up rather than challenge that report in a hearing. He may not do so initially on appeal. See State v. Arthur, 184 N.J. 307, 327 (2005); Brady, supra, 149 N.J. at 266-67.

We find nothing arbitrary and capricious in the DOC's decision imposing sanctions upon Chavis after his guilty plea to the charge.



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