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Jones v. New Jersey Dep't of Corrections


August 17, 2010


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted March 1, 2010

Before Judges Lisa and R. B. Coleman.

Rashon Jones, an inmate at New Jersey State Prison, appeals from a final decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) upholding the decision of the hearing officer that found Jones guilty of prohibited act *.004, fighting with another person and *.306, conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security and orderly running of the correctional facility. For each violation, sanctions of fifteen days detention, 365 days administrative segregation, 365 days loss of commutation credits and thirty days loss of recreational privileges were imposed, to be served consecutively.

In his appellate brief, Jones argues that the evidence was insufficient to establish his guilt, that the two infractions should have been merged to avoid double punishment and that the sanctions were excessive. We reject those arguments and affirm.

In reviewing DOC decisions respecting discipline of inmates, we apply the standard of review applicable to final agency decisions in general. Thus, our review is limited to a determination of "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record, considering the proofs as a whole.'" Close v. Kordulak, 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)). "[A]n appellate court will reverse the decision of the administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by the substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). The burden of demonstrating that the action of the agency was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable rests upon the individual challenging that action. McGowan v. N.J. State Parole Bd., 347 N.J. Super. 544, 563 (App. Div. 2002). We find no basis to disturb the findings or the disciplinary action taken.

The critical facts are concisely stated in Jones' own brief. He states

On April 18, 2008, at dinnertime, a fight involving several inmates broke out in the mess hall at New Jersey State Prison. Appellant was identified by SCO C. Sebastian as one of the participants in the fighting. As a result of the fight, the mess movement was halted and all the other inmate movement, programs, and activities within the prison were canceled for the entire evening.

Jones contends, however, that he was "attempting to break up the fight and someone hit me, . . . I was defending myself."

Several corrections officers identified Jones as being involved in the fight. The hearing officer indicated in his summary of the evidence that Officer Sebastian, in particular, observed Jones as a willing participant in a fight. Jones reportedly threw more than one punch at other inmates involved in the incident. Two of the prime antagonists, inmate Mathis and inmate Feagins, denied that Jones was a participant. They supported Jones' role as a would-be peacemaker. However, the hearing officer rejected that view of Jones' involvement, noting for example, that Feagins "was, himself, heavily involved in a physical altercation during the incident and it is not reasonable [to] conclude that inmate Feagins could have maintained sight of inmate Jones' activities during the entire incident."

The hearing officer found Officer Sebastian's vantage point more reliable, as he noted:

Officer Sebastian testified that he was locked in the rear cage of the IDR during the mess movement. He added that the inmate later identified as Jones was seated in front of the IDR until the fight started. He testified that he observed the inmate involved in a fighting incident in the IDR. He testified that he observed Jones throw more than one punch at the other inmates involved in the incident. He added that he identified the inmate by sight and that identification was confirmed after the incident. He testified that after the identification was made he was able to confirm that inmate Jones was involved in the large fight that took place.

Ultimately, the hearing officer found, based on his assessment of the evidence, "that inmate Jones was involved in a fighting episode in the IDR of NJSP." We are satisfied that finding could be reached on the credible evidence in the record. Close, supra, 44 N.J. at 599.

We also reject Jones' contentions that the two infractions, fighting and disrupting the security and orderly running of the facility, should have been merged and that the sanctions should not have been made to run consecutively. First, as the DOC points out, this argument should not be considered because it is being raised for the first time on appeal. Neider v. Royal Indemnity Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973) (matters not raised are deemed waived). However, passing the issue of waiver, in the interest of completeness, we shall consider the argument. In that regard, we note that "what is the 'necessary disciplinary regime' is for the prison officials to decide[.]" Cooke v. Tramburg, 43 N.J. 514, 523 (1964) (quoting Sostre v. McGinnis 334 F.2d 906, 908 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 379 U.S. 892, 85 S.Ct. 168, 13 L.Ed. 2d 96 (1964)). We note that the discretion of the prison officials to impose discipline to maintain order and security is not without limits, but "[t]heir determinations are limited only by proof that their actions are either capricious or arbitrary." Ibid.

Here, we do not find the imposition of consecutive sanctions in this case arbitrary or capricious. Nor do we find the sanctions excessive. Separate sanctions for the two violations were not inappropriate. The mere act of fighting does not necessarily cause any further consequences, but the nature and circumstances of the fighting involved here spread and caused substantial additional consequences that adversely affected the entire institution. The hearing officer indicated the harsh sanctions were appropriate and necessary to deter this type of behavior in the future. The DOC agreed, and so do we.



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