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PLN suit against MI jail mentioned in article about ACLU case

Detroit Free Press, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN suit against MI jail mentioned in article about ACLU case - Detroit Free Press 2014

Judge orders jail to deliver mail to inmates after complaint from ACLU

8:07 AM, April 16, 2014

By Lisa Roose-Church
Gannett Michigan

A U.S. District Court judge ordered the Livingston County Jail to deliver American Civil Liberties Union letters sent to inmates in February.

Judge Denise Page Hood’s ruling on Friday came at the request of the ACLU who alleged jail administrators violated inmates’ First and 14th amendments rights by blocking and reading mail sent to inmates.

“Correspondence from an attorney is the very essence of legal mail,” Hood wrote in her court opinion, adding the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals “has noted that mail from the ACLU is confidential legal mail.”

Livonia attorney T. Joseph Seward, who represents the county, countered: “What (the ACLU) calls legal mail is not, in our opinion, legal mail. It’s another form of advertising.”

The court also set a hearing May 12 to hear the ACLU’s request for an injunction.

The ACLU said the jail’s “postcard only” policy severely restricts the inmates’ communication with the outside world. The jail policy exempts legal mail, but the ACLU alleged the jail did not deliver 25 letters to inmates that were written by an ACLU attorney in February.

The ACLU said the letters were clearly marked “legal mail” and included the attorney’s name, State Bar of Michigan member number and ACLU logo and address.

Instead, the ACLU alleges, jail administrators opened, read and shared the legal mail sent by the ACLU attorney.

Sheriff Bob Bezotte said the ACLU “inappropriately marked” the mail as legal mail to inmates the organization does not represent in current or past cases.

'Being sneaky'
“They’re trying to play they’re the victims, and they aren’t,” the sheriff said. “They’re being sneaky. ... We respect the client-attorney privilege.”

Seward said the ACLU’s mail stemmed from a lawsuit initially filed by Prison Legal News in which the county sought sanctions against the ACLU.

Prison Legal News filed suit in August 2011 alleging Bezotte’s department has “adopted and implemented written-mail policies and practices that unconstitutionally” restrict correspondence with prisoners to postcards only, which would ban delivery of the journal.

The ACLU also argues the jail’s “postcard only” policy is severe.

The county argued Prison Legal News does not have a First Amendment right to force it to distribute sample copies of the magazine because the Supreme Court has not declared that publishers have a “freestanding right to unsolicited communication with inmates,” and that the courts have upheld “outright prohibitions against bulk mail and free advertising,” according to court documents.

The ACLU, Seward said, filed a brief in the Prison Legal News case to help the court decide the issue between the two parties, but when the county successfully got the court to rule Prison Legal News’ correspondence was not “legal mail,” the ACLU changed from a friend of the court to litigator and advocate by sending a “whole host of materials to the jail” in an effort to further Prison Legal News’ fight.

As a result, the county sought sanctions against the ACLU because “it was going around the back door of the court’s earlier ruling,” Seward said.

Prison Legal News was “using the ACLU to do stuff they couldn’t do,” the county’s attorney argued.

Seward and Bezotte said the ACLU material was not confidential, privileged correspondence between an attorney and a client, but rather the ACLU’s attempt to solicit potential clients for a potential lawsuit.

“The ACLU does not have a First Amendment right to force the government, county, to spend its limited resources helping the ACLU try to solicit support for its causes,” Seward said Tuesday.

Hood, who made her decision without having a response from the county, ruled the courts have long held that the loss of First Amendment freedoms “constitutes irreparable injury” and the jail’s actions caused irreparable harm.

“There is no penological interest or security concern that justifies opening such legal mail outside the prisoner’s presence,” the judge ruled.



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