May 18, 2012
QUACY APRIL, APPELLANT,
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 27, 2012
Before Judges Grall and Alvarez.
In this prison disciplinary matter, Quacy April, a state inmate, appeals from a final New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) administrative decision issued on April 18, 2011. April was adjudicated guilty of disciplinary infractions *.001, killing; *.306, conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the correctional facility; and *.010, participating in an activity related to a security threat group. See N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1. We affirm.
The incident which resulted in these charges occurred August 23, 2010, while April was serving a three-year sentence with a one-year mandatory minimum term for receiving stolen property, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7(b)(3), and unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b). April was housed at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility. On that date, April, along with four other inmates, killed another inmate, Carl Epps, by punching and kicking him. The criminal incident was referred to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office as required by N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.2. When interviewed by the Prosecutor's Office, April admitted participating in the assault by hitting Epps twice, once on his back and once on the arm or neck area. Mountainview was locked down for approximately twenty-four hours after the incident; the Special Investigations Division's investigation commenced immediately. April, along with the other inmates involved in the incident, were found to be members of the Crips gang. As a result of the charges, April was placed in prehearing detention.*fn1
After the completion of the investigation, DOC Sergeant Infante, on March 4, 2011, served the disciplinary charges on April. The disciplinary hearing commenced on March 7, 2011, but was postponed because April was out of the facility due to a court appearance. The following day, the hearing officer again postponed the matter pending receipt of additional material from the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, which had been conducting a parallel investigation. Thereafter, the hearing was postponed on five occasions because additional materials were generated by the ongoing investigations. On March 28, 2011, DOC Investigator Wayne Robbins issued a report finding that April and the other inmates conspired to assault Epps and were involved in a security threat group or gang.
The hearing reconvened on March 29, 2011, and April and his counsel substitute requested an additional twenty-four hours in which to review the evidence and prepare, which request was granted. On March 31, 2011, counsel substitute submitted April's statement for the record, and the hearing was postponed again for review of the document.
At the close of the proceedings, Hearing Officer Oszvart*fn2 found April guilty of all three charges. On the *.001 charge, he imposed a sanction of fifteen days detention with credit for time served, 365 days of administrative segregation, and 365 days of loss of commutation time. With regard to the *.306 charge, April received sanctions of fifteen days of detention with credit for time served, 365 days administrative segregation, and 365 days loss of commutation time, consecutive to the sanctions for the *.001 charge. With regard to the *.010 charge, April received sanctions of credit for thirty days of time served, 365 days administrative segregation, and 365 days loss of commutation time consecutive to the *.001 and *.306 charge sanctions.
April administratively appealed. On April 18, 2011, Associate Administrator Sherry Jones upheld the hearing officer's decision, contrary to April's assertion on appeal, concluding that the failure to adhere to the time lines in this case was excusable because of "the seriousness and complexity of the charges, along with the fact that the evidence was controlled by an outside agency . . . ." Furthermore, although no officer reports were submitted, the hearing officer did review April's confession, which was corroborated by the other inmates who were charged. In reaching her decision, Jones also relied on other information, including the medical examiner's report and DOC Senior Investigator Brian Bonomo's expertise in gang intelligence. She concluded that the proofs constituted substantial evidence supporting the charges. Additionally, Jones noted that at April's request the hearing was delayed forty-eight hours, and that he was afforded an opportunity to produce witnesses for the hearing, but declined to do so. Lastly, Jones opined that April could not be given credit for the time he alleged he spent in TCC. He was, however, given credit for time spent in prehearing detention.
Prisoners are entitled to certain due process protections before being subjected to disciplinary sanctions. Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 521 (1975). We summarize those requirements:
(1) Written notice of the charges at least twenty-four hours prior to the hearing,
(2) An impartial tribunal,
(3) Where the charges are complex or the inmate is illiterate or otherwise unable to prepare his defense, the inmate should be permitted the assistance of counsel-substitute,
(4) A limited right to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in defense to the charges,
(5) A limited right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses,
(6) A right to a written statement of the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the sanctions imposed.
[Id. at 525-30, 533.]
These procedural due process requirements balance the "security concerns of the prison, the need for swift and fair discipline, and the due process rights of the inmate." McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188, 202 (1995).
In this case, all procedural requirements were met. April received notice of the charges three days prior to the hearing, and when he requested an additional delay, the request was granted. His case was heard by an impartial tribunal as defined in Avant, supra, 67 N.J. at 525. April was assigned counsel substitute, offered the opportunity to call witnesses, which he declined, and submitted a written statement setting forth the reasons he believed he was entitled to dismissal of the disciplinary charges. April also declined the opportunity to confront or cross-examine adverse witnesses. He reviewed the adjudication report and all the evidence relied upon by the hearing officer, as confirmed by his counsel substitute's signature.
April nonetheless contends that because of the delay between the incident and the proceeding, his due process rights were violated. The argument ignores the import of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.2, which requires a disciplinary report to be served within forty-eight hours except where there are "exceptional circumstances." Such circumstances are clearly present in this case.
The Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office conducted a lengthy investigation, generating extensive materials provided to the DOC. DOC also conducted a thorough investigation of this very serious incident. The mandatory referral to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and the ensuing investigation qualify as "exceptional circumstances" warranting delay from the forty-eight hour time frame specified by N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.2.
Moreover, in accord with N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.9(a), failure to adhere to time limits does not require the dismissal of a disciplinary charge so long as certain factors enumerated in the Administrative Code are balanced, including the length of the delay, reason for the delay, prejudice to the inmate, and seriousness of the alleged infraction. When we balance those factors, failure to adhere to the time limits in this case does not require dismissal of the disciplinary charges. The seven-month delay was warranted in light of the fact the charge was for a killing committed within a DOC facility. And April does not direct our attention to any actual prejudice to his ability to defend himself in the hearing resulting from the delay.
April does contend that his time in TCC and prehearing detention violated the Administrative Code. But an inmate does not ordinarily have a liberty interest in remaining free from administrative segregation. Jenkins v. Fauver, 108 N.J. 239, 250 (1987) (citing Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 467, 103 S. Ct. 864, 869, 74 L. Ed. 2d 675, 685 (1983)). Administrative segregation is "the sort of confinement that inmates should reasonably anticipate receiving at some point in their incarceration." Ibid. (quoting Hewitt, supra, 459 U.S. at 468, 103 S. Ct. at 869, 74 L. Ed. 2d at 686); see also Griffin v. Vaughn, 112 F.3d 703, 706 (3d Cir. 1997) (finding that holding inmate in administrative custody awaiting disposition of charges of rape did not constitute a violation of procedural due process because the detention "did not impose on him an 'atypical and significant hardship' . . . ."). Therefore, this claim lacks merit as well.
Defendant also argues that he should receive credit for time spent in TCC. Defendant acknowledges, however, that there is no evidence that he was placed on TCC status. In any event, time spent in TCC is not credited to a subsequent detention status. Compare N.J.A.C. 10A:5-71, with N.J.A.C. 10A:4-10.1(f). Inmates do, however, receive credit for prehearing detention. N.J.A.C. 10A:4-10.1(f). In any event, defendant received credits for prehearing detention and will not serve any additional days in detention despite his sentences. Therefore this argument also lacks merit.
"[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 substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980).
An adjudication of guilt of a disciplinary infraction must be supported by "substantial evidence . . . ." N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a). Substantial evidence has been defined as that which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." In re Application of Hackensack Water Co., 41 N.J. Super. 408, 418 (App. Div. 1956). The extensive materials, including April's own inculpatory statement, reviewed by the hearing officer, established substantial credible evidence of April's guilt.
The Avant procedural requirements were met. The administrative decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable and was supported by substantial credible evidence. That April may have been placed in TCC or prehearing detention was not a violation of his due process rights.