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Willie Chatum v. New Jersey Department of Corrections

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


May 23, 2012

WILLIE CHATUM, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.

On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted April 30, 2012

Before Judges Parrillo and Alvarez.

This is a prison disciplinary appeal. Willie Chatum, an inmate currently confined at South Woods State Prison, appeals from a final determination of the Department of Corrections (DOC), after administrative proceedings, finding that he committed prohibited act *203 (possession of alcohol) in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1; and from sanctions imposed on prohibited acts *.101 (escape while in DOC custody) and 257 (conduct that violates a condition of a community release program), to which he had pled guilty. We affirm.

These disciplinary infractions occurred while Chatum was residing at a residential halfway house. On April 3, 2011, upon his return to the halfway house from a permitted furlough, Chatum was searched by Resident Supervisor Coursey, who found four plastic bottles containing a liquid in a bag that Chatum was carrying. The four bottles each had "Tropicana Grape Juice" labels, but contained "clear liquid with the aroma of alcohol." According to Coursey, upon discovery of the bottles, Chatum became scared and "claimed he brought in the wrong bag and wanted to call his girl so she could bring him the correct bag." The bottles were then confiscated.

Sometime thereafter, Chatum pulled the fire alarm located at a facility exit and then fled out the exit door. The next day, an escape warrant was issued by the DOC for Chatum's arrest. Chatum then turned himself in on April 6, 2011, three days after his escape, at the nearby Bridgeton Police Department, after which he was transferred to South Woods State Prison.

Chatum pled "not guilty" to the *.203 charge of possessing alcohol and received the assistance of counsel substitute. However, he declined witness statements and the right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses at the hearing. In finding him guilty of the *.203 charge, the hearing officer credited the prison reports and rejected Chatum's claim that he accidentally brought the bottles into the halfway house. Sanctions were imposed consisting of fifteen days Disciplinary Detention, one year of urine monitoring, 300 days of Administrative Segregation, loss of 300 days of commutation time and loss of contact visits for one year.

Chatum pled guilty to the *.101 prohibited act (escape) and his counsel substitute requested leniency. Chatum himself admitted "he was scared so he ran." Having thus been adjudicated guilty of escape, Chatum was sanctioned fifteen days Disciplinary Detention, 300 days of Administrative Segregation and loss of 300 days of commutation time, to run consecutively with the sanctions imposed for the *.203 violation.*fn1

Chatum filed an administrative appeal of the hearing officer's finding of guilt on the *.203 charge and sought a reduction of the sanctions imposed on the *.101 and *.203 charges. He argued that the liquid in the confiscated bottles was not "field tested" and that prior to the incident for which he was sanctioned "he had a positive adjustment to community release and has been relatively charge free his entire sentence." The administrative appeal and request for leniency by Chatum were denied by the Assistant Administrator, who found that the sanctions imposed were "proportionate to the offense."

This appeal follows in which Chatum argues:

APPELLANT WAS CHARGED WITH *.101 ESCAPE AND *.203 WHILE IN KINTOCK #4 HALF-WAY HOUSE. THE ALLEGED ESCAPE WAS DUE TO THE CONDITIONS OF CONFINEMENT. THE ALLEGED *.203 WAS NOT TESTED TO PROVE THE SUBSTANCE WAS ALLEGED ALCOHOL OR ANY DRUG RELATED SUBSTANCE.

Specifically, Chatum contends:

I. COURTLINE SANCTIONS WERE EXCESSIVE, IN LIGHT OF MY RECORD HAVING WORK RELEASE STATUS.

II. THE FINDINGS ARE AGAINST THE WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE AND INCONSISTENT WITH THE FACTS.

III. MR. CHATUM TURNED HIMSELF INTO D.O.C. CUSTODY WITHIN 72 HOURS.

IV. THE 4 BOTTLES OF CLEAR LIQUID WERE NEVER TESTED IN A LAB REPORT.

V. DISCIPLINARY OFFICER E. DIBENEDETTO IMPOSED CONSECUTIVE SANCTIONS.

VI. THERE WAS NO LENIENCY CONSIDERED.

VII. THE ADMINISTRATOR JOHN POWELL NEVER LOOKED INTO CHARGES OR REPORT.

VIII. DISCIPLINARY OFFICER E. DIBENEDETTO TOLD A PARALEGAL TO TELL MR. CHATUM THAT IF HE CAME OUT OF HIS CELL TO EXPLAIN HIS CASE THE SANCTIONS SHE IMPOSED WOULD BE WORSE.

IX. MR. CHATUM WAS THREATENED BY DISCIPLINARY OFFICER E. DIBENEDETTO.

X. E. DIBENEDETTO DEMONSTRATED PREJUDICE OR BIAS IN THE CASE WHICH AFFECTED HER DECISION.

XI. MR. CHATUM IS NOT A CHRONIC VIOLATOR.

XII. MR. CHATUM IS NOT A VIOLENT OFFENDER.

XIII. THIS IS MR. CHATUM'S FIRST ADULT SENTENCE.

We reject these contentions as all without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We are satisfied that the DOC's ultimate determination is sufficiently grounded in substantial credible evidence, Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980), and that the administrative adjudication comported with procedural due process. See Jacobs v. Stephens, 139 N.J. 212 (1995); McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188 (1995). Suffice it to say, the initial determination of the *.203 charge was made by a hearing officer in a disciplinary proceeding largely on credibility grounds, to which we defer. Moreover, Chatum did not call as a witness, N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.5, his girlfriend, whose bag he claimed he mistakenly brought into the halfway house, and could not explain why he became scared after the bottles were discovered. Furthermore, scientific evidence was not needed to identify the contents of the confiscated bottles as the appearance and smell of alcohol are matters well within a lay person's common knowledge, especially that of a trained employee working within the New Jersey state prison system. See State v. Bealor, 187 N.J. 574, 585 (2006); State v. Bakka, 176 N.J. 533, 550-51 (2003).

Lastly, the sanctions imposed were consistent with the governing regulations, N.J.A.C. 10A:4-5.1(a); N.J.A.C. 10A:20-4.19(d)(3), and well within the DOC's broad discretion. Russo v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 324 N.J. Super. 576, 583 (App. Div. 1999). The sanctions imposed for the entirely separate prohibited acts of *.203 and *.101 were proportionate to the seriousness of those offenses and running them consecutively was in complete accord with the regulatory scheme. N.J.A.C. 10A:4-5.3(a)(1). We defer to the agency's rejection of Chatum's claim for leniency, as within its special expertise and neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. In Re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 191 (2011).

Affirmed.


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