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Washington Officials Liable for Seizing Court Tape

In an unpublished ruling, the court of appeals for the ninth circuit held prison officials were not entitled to qualified immunity for intentionally withholding a prisoner's video taped court transcript. Robert Wrinkle a Washington state prisoner at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, sought to submit a pro se brief to supplement that of his attorney in his direct criminal appeal. To do so he needed to review his video taped trial (many counties in WA video tape rather than transcribe trials resulting in a tape rather than a written transcript). The tape were duly sent to the prison where unit supervisor Michael Leahy put it in his desk and let it sit there for over a year, depriving Wrinkle of the ability to file his supplemental brief.

Wrinkle filed suit claiming denial of the tape violated his right of access to the courts. The federal district court in Tacoma dismissed the suit. The court of appeals reversed and remanded, holding that Wrinkle had shown actual injury to his right of court access. The court also held that Leahy and prison warden Robert Wright were not entitled to qualified immunity from money damages because Wrinkle had produced circumstantial evidence that Wright knew Leahy had intentionally withheld the tape. Because a trier of fact could also infer from the circumstantial evidence that Wright knew Leahy intentionally witheld the tape, a trial was required to resolve the matter. The court relied on the fact that Wrinkle had shown Wright and Leahy were liars. "A reasonable jury could find from this evidence that the false explanation was intended to conceal Wright's knowledge of Leahy's wrongdoing." The court also faulted the district court for not allowing Wrinkle to conduct discovery. Readers should note that as an unpublished case it cannot he cited as binding precedent. See: Wrinkle v. Wright, Case 95-35989 (9th Cir. 1996).

The case was argued in the ninth circuit by Seattle attorney and PLN supporter Leonard Feldman who supervised third year law University of Washington law students Randy Aoyama, Tuan Ho and Sharina Palomares. The law students participated as part of the 9th Circuit Pro Bono Program Externship at the Seattle law office of Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe. We extend our congratulations for winning their first case before graduating law school.

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Related legal case

Wrinkle v. Wright

100 F.3d 966 (Table), 1996 WL 616652 (9th Cir.(Wash.)) Unpublished Disposition


(The Court's decision is referenced in a "Table of Decisions Without Reported Opinions" appearing in the Federal Reporter. Use FI CTA9 Rule 36-3 for rules regarding the citation of unpublished opinions.)

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

Robert D. WRINKLE, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Robert L. WRIGHT; Michael Leahy; Harold Kupers; Robin Schimetz, Defendants-

No. 95-35989.

Argued and Submitted Oct. 8, 1996.

Decided Oct. 23, 1996.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, No. CV-94-05730-RJB; Robert J. Bryan, District Judge, Presiding.



Before: BROWNING, D.W. NELSON, and FERNANDEZ, Circuit Judges


FN* This disposition is not appropriate for publication and may not be cited to or by the courts of this circuit except as provided by 9th Cir.R. 36-3.

**1 A triable issue of fact precluded summary judgment for Robert L. Wright and Michael Leahy on their defense of qualified immunity.

Prisoners have a clearly established constitutional right of access to the courts. Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1976). Robert D. Wrinkle alleged an actual injury to this right. See Sands v. Lewis, 886 F.2d 1166, 1171 (9th Cir.1989). Wright and Leahy do not argue to the contrary. Rule 10.1 of the Washington Rules of Appellate Procedure gives a pro se prisoner the right to file a brief supplementing that filed by counsel. See Wash.R.App.P. 10.1(d). Wrinkle asserted he could not file such a brief supporting his theory of juror misconduct because Wright and Leahy intentionally withheld the tape constituting the transcript of the jury selection process. See DeWitt v. Pail, 366 F.2d 682, 685 (9th Cir.1996).

Wrinkle adduced circumstantial evidence that Wright and Leahy intentionally withheld the jury selection tape. See Lindsey v. Shalmy, 29 F.3d 1382, 1385 (9th Cir.1994) (when subjective intent is at issue, plaintiff can defeat a summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity only by submitting direct or circumstantial evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact on the official's wrongful intent). Harold Kupers' grievance response stated: "The second [videotape] (jury selection) was held by [Leahy] pending the completion of [Wrinkle's] review of the first (preliminary hearing) tape. Nobody told [him] when [Wrinkle was] done." (ER 26). Viewing this response in the light most favorable to Wrinkle, a reasonable trier-of-fact could infer that Leahy knew there were two tapes and did not believe Wrinkle had already viewed the jury selection tape. The response contains indicia of accuracy: Kupers said he conducted a thorough investigation, consulting mailroom and education logs and interviewing Wrinkle's custody unit supervisors. (ER 26).

A trier-of-fact could also infer from the circumstantial evidence that Wright knew Leahy intentionally withheld the tape. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir.1989) (a superior is liable for his subordinates' constitutional violations if he participated in the violations or knew about them and failed to stop them). Wright's memorandum to Wrinkle stated Wrinkle had viewed the jury selection tape. (ER 21). However, Wrinkle has shown this explanation to be false. A reasonable jury could find from this evidence that the false explanation was intended to conceal Wright's knowledge of Leahy's wrongdoing.

Because a clearly established constitutional right is at issue and a reasonable official would not have believed that intentionally withholding the tape was lawful, the district court erred in granting summary judgment against Wrinkle without giving him the opportunity to conduct discovery "tailored specifically to the question of ... qualified immunity." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 646-47 n. 6 (1987). [FN1]

FN1. Because Wrinkle has not yet prevailed on his claims, he is not entitled to his attorney's fees. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988; Hervey v. Estes, 65 F.3d 784, 792 (9th Cir.1995).


100 F.3d 966 (Table), 1996 WL 616652 (9th Cir.(Wash.)) Unpublished Disposition