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Prisoner-Exclusion Clause in Virginia's Freedom-Of-Information-Act is Not Unconstitutional

by John E. Dannenberg

The U.S. District Court (W.D. Va.) held that the statutory exclusion of prisoners from utilizing the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) (Va. Code Ann. 2.2-3703(C)) was neither unconstitutional on its face nor as applied to the challenging prisoner.

Joseph Giarratano, who was diagnosed in 1996 with Hepatitis C (HCV), requested that officials at Virginia's Red Onion State Prison provide him with copies of their HCV treatment protocol (so he could learn what he was legally entitled to, and bring suit if he was being shortchanged).

After the prison officials declined and Giarratano had exhausted his administrative remedies, he filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asking that the VFOIA be declared unconstitutional because its disparate treatment of prisoners violated the Equal Protection Clause, and because even if it were constitutional, it should not be construed against his reasonable, non-frivolous ("as-applied") need for the requested public records.

As to facial unconstitutionality, the district court ruled that Giarratano's claim must be reviewed under the rational basis test, because "laws are presumed to be constitutional" and "prisoners are not a suspect class." Here, Giarratano would have to disprove the existence of every conceivable basis which might support the statute. The court found he could not meet this burden, because at the very least Virginia might well have wanted to curb frivolous litigation, and such a "noble" purpose would suffice to negate his claim. The district court added that Virginia's legislators could also have rationally believed that prisoners are entitled to fewer rights because of their incarcerated status.

Regarding Giarratano's "as applied" exclusion request, the court held that "this legislation is nonetheless valid even though there may be an imperfect fit between means and ends in some instances." And as to Giarratano's First Amendment and Due Process arguments, the court relied on Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 355 (1996) to limit his right of access to the courts to only those actions "bringing contemplated challenges to sentences or conditions of confinement before the courts." The court found that denial of Red Onion's HCV protocol would not prevent Giarratano from filing a complaint, and that therefore, as applied, the exclusion from VFOIA did not infringe on his constitutional rights.
Accordingly, the district court granted the prison officials' motion to dismiss.

The court put much weight on the hypothetical proposition that prisoners might file frivolous litigation at a rate greater than the general public. However, no such showing was made, much less examined. To the contrary, that Giarratano might die before he could discover what treatment he was entitled to did not even enter into the court's consideration. See: Giarratano v. Johnson, 456 F.Supp.2d 747 (W.D.Va 2006).

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Related legal case

Giarratano v. Johnson