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Jonathan Crespo v. New Jersey Department of Corrections

January 24, 2013


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 11, 2012

Before Judges Fuentes and Hayden.

Appellant Jonathan Crespo appeals from a final decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC), finding him guilty of prohibited act *.306, conduct which disrupts or interferes with the orderly running of the correctional facility, and *.253, engaging in, or encouraging, a group demonstration. Based upon our review of the applicable law and governing legal principles, we affirm.

Crespo is an inmate serving four years for burglary, currently incarcerated in the Northern State Prison in Newark. In early July 2011, he was incarcerated at the Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility in Bordentown. On July 7, 2011, correctional facility staff conducted a search of the "F" housing unit and placed the inmates temporarily in the gymnasium. Two inmates became involved in a heated verbal dispute and other inmates gathered around. A corrections officer issued a command to the inmates to disband and only about half of them complied. After additional instructions were given to the instigators to approach the gate and be handcuffed, some of the inmates removed their shirts, shouting "[w]e are not leaving." Crespo was identified as one of the inmates who refused to leave and charges were filed against him.

After a number of adjournments, the hearing was conducted on July 28, 2001. By that date, Crespo had been transferred to Northern State Prison. Crespo had the opportunity to present witnesses and confront adverse witnesses but he declined, contending that he did not know the names of the members of any of the inmates involved. He gave a statement denying that he was a participant. He explained that he had been caught on the bleachers and was unable to leave when the officers told the inmates to disperse. However, in written reports, Corrections Officer Williams identified Crespo as an instigator and also identified him in the grainy videotape of the incident.

The hearing officer issued a decision crediting the reports of the corrections officer that Crespo had participated in a group demonstration that disrupted the entire facility's operations. Hence, he found that Crespo had violated *.306 and *.253. The hearing officer sanctioned Crespo fifteen days detention, 210 days administrative segregation and 210 days loss of commutation time for the *.306 charge and consecutive fifteen days detention, 105 days administrative segregation and 150 days loss of commutation time for the *.253 charge. Crespo filed an internal appeal. The Administrator upheld the decision and sanctions of the hearing officer on August 8, 2011. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Crespo argues that the hearing officers' decision was incorrect and violated his due process rights. He again contends that he was not part of the group demonstration but had merely ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He again maintains that he could not name any of the participants because he did not know them. He also argues that his transfer to another correctional facility prevented him and his counsel substitute from investigating the incident further. The DOC responds that Crespo was offered the opportunity to present witnesses and did not make a request for extra time for investigation or ask for any special consideration due to his transfer.

Our role in reviewing an agency decision is limited. In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579 (1980)). Our function is to determine whether the administrative action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Dep't of Corr., 382 N.J. Super. 18, 23 (App. Div. 2005) (citation omitted). "The burden of demonstrating that the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable rests upon the [party] challenging the administrative action." In re Arenas, 385 N.J. Super. 440, 443-44 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 188 N.J. 219 (2006).

The DOC has "broad discretionary powers" to promulgate regulations aimed at maintaining security and order inside correctional facilities. Jenkins v. Fauver, 108 N.J. 239, 252 (1987). Furthermore, as we have previously noted, "[p]risons are dangerous places, and the courts must afford appropriate deference and flexibility to administrators trying to manage this volatile environment." Russo v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 324 N.J. Super. 576, 584 (App. Div. 1999).

Prison disciplinary hearings are not part of a criminal prosecution, and the full spectrum of rights due to a criminal defendant does not apply. Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 522 (1975). Nonetheless, prisoners are entitled to certain limited due process protections. Ibid. These protections include written notice of the charges at least twenty-four hours prior to the hearing, an impartial tribunal which may consist of personnel from the central office staff, a limited right to call witnesses, the assistance of counsel substitute, and a right to a written statement of evidence relied upon and the reasons for the sanctions imposed. Id. at 525-33; see also McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188, 193-96 (1995). The record shows that Crespo was provided with all these due process protections.

"A finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing shall be based upon substantial evidence that the inmate has committed a prohibited act." N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a). Substantial evidence means "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." In re Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 35 N.J. 358, 376 (1961) (citations omitted).

We are satisfied that the hearing officer's findings that Crespo participated in a group demonstration that disrupted operations of the prison is amply supported by the record. Further, Crespo has failed to demonstrate that his transfer to another facility resulted in a denial of due process. No evidence in the record suggests that Crespo made any request to interview any potential witness but was denied or prevented. Crespo repeatedly claimed that he did not know the names of anyone involved in ...

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