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Michael Bonilla v. New Jersey Department of Corrections

July 25, 2011


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted: July 5, 2011

Before Judges Axelrad and Lisa.

Michael Bonilla, an inmate currently incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) in Trenton, appeals from a final determination of the Department of Corrections (DOC) denying his claim seeking reimbursement for lost property. On appeal, he asserts due process violations in the investigation, challenges the agency's procedures regarding the packing and transporting of inmate property, and submits the agency determination was arbitrary. We affirm.

On October 6, 2009, while incarcerated at NJSP, appellant was moved from his cell to a cell located in the disciplinary detention unit after he was charged with committing a prohibited act. On that date, Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) Martinez filled out an Inmate Inventory Sheet listing all of the property in appellant's possession at that time and packed the items into five boxes. No beard trimmer was listed among the items inventoried or packed.

Appellant was released from the detention unit on October 13, 2009, and his personal property was returned. He reported an electric beard trimmer missing and promptly filed a claim with a supporting sales receipt dated November 7, 2008 for $43.45. He filed an Inmate Remedy System Form on March 17, 2010, and an Inmate Claim for Lost, Damaged or Destroyed Personal Property on May 6, 2010.

Investigations were performed by Sergeants Spires and Hintz. Appellant and Sergeant Kirby, the property room officer, were interviewed. SCO Martinez prepared a report on June 18, 2010, stating he did "not recall packing any electric trimmers" when packing appellant's property. He explained that if he had come across such an item, it would have been inventoried and placed with the rest of appellant's belongings. SCO Martinez pointed out that appellant had a roommate with access to all of his property who he had to remove from the cell to pack appellant's belongings.

In his June 24, 2010 report, Sgt. Hintz recited the procedural history and facts gleaned from the investigation. He noted that appellant's cell mate was moved the day after appellant was placed in detention; his cell was later searched but no beard trimmer was found. Sgt. Hintz concluded there was "no way of proving if foul play had occurred between the time [appellant] was sent to 1L and prior to his property being packed up on Oct. 6, 2009. The property was originally packed in a timely manner revealing no neglect upon the correctional facility or staff." Accordingly, Sgt. Hintz recommended denying appellant's property claim based on the decision making factors set forth in N.J.A.C. 10A:2-6.2.

Based on Sgt. Hintz's investigation, Captain Ortiz prepared a report on July 2, 2010 recommending appellant be denied compensation on his claim. In support, he noted SCO Martinez's statement that "there were no trimmers in the property to be packed or he would have listed them" and Sgt. Hintz's conclusion that appellant "could not prove the trimmer was in his property when it was packed in 4 Wing, which was a double lock cell[.]" Capt. Ortiz additionally found the investigation did not reveal any neglect by the correctional facility, a decision-making factor for approving or denying a claim under N.J.A.C. 10A:2-6.2(a)(1).

Assistant Superintendent Jim Barnes denied appellant's property loss claim by letter of July 8, 2010, concluding "[t]here was no evidence submitted indicating negligence on the part of staff." This appeal ensued.

On appeal, appellant argues the investigation: (1) failed to obtain materially relevant witness statements from his cell mate and others as to whether appellant had the beard trimmer in his possession up until the time he was moved from the cell; (2) elevated a report from the corrections officer over a sworn certification and legitimate sales receipt; (3) blamed appellant for losing property while he was placed in the detention unit with no control over his property; (4) failed to find or recognize officials' failure to utilize regulatory safeguards to insure appellant could observe the packing and inventory, or at least contemporaneously verify the accuracy of the Inmate Inventory Sheet; (5) failed to recognize that arbitrary discipline charges were baseless and may have been pretextual; and (6) failed to discover what happened to a lawfully purchased beard trimmer. Accordingly, appellant urges the determination was based on an inadequate decision violative of his due process rights and not supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record, was arbitrary, and failed "to recognize the inherent danger in not preventing the loss of property that can be easily and quickly be converted from apparently legitimate property into dangerous weapon(s)." Appellant additionally challenges the "habit, policy, or practice" of the DOC in packing up an inmate's personal items while he is in detention, without an ability to personally observe the process, and the refusal to create a "time of day based Inventory Sheet" as problematic, arbitrary, negligent, a denial of due process, and a means of "maximiz[ing] the potential for victimization of inmates[.]"

Our review of the DOC's final determination is limited. We will reverse an agency's decision only where it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or is unsupported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (l980); see also In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (l999) (holding the court must uphold agency findings, even if it would have reached a different result, so long as sufficient credible evidence in the record exists to support the agency's conclusions).

Both Captain Ortiz and Assistant Superintendent Barnes appropriately considered one of the decision-making factors for approving or denying a claim under N.J.A.C. 10A:2-6.2(a)(1), i.e., "[w]hether the investigation revealed any neglect by the correctional facility[.]" Contrary to appellant's claims, NJSP personnel conducted a thorough investigation of his property loss claim and there was ample basis to find in the negative as to this factor. Moreover, NJSP staff is not required to have appellant present when his personal items are packed up. Within the DOC's discretion, a procedure is established in which a corrections officer packs an inmate's belongings and fills ...

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