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Court Upholds Photocopying of Jail Prisoner’s Mail, Suppression Denied

Court Upholds Photocopying of Jail Prisoner's Mail, Suppression Denied

The detained criminal defendant had an expectation of privacy in his non-legal mail that he may assert by moving to suppress evidence in his prosecution. Although applicable regulations permit prison authorities to inspect and read incoming and outgoing non-legal mail, "that permission is not boundless." (289) Incoming mail may be read "to maintain security or monitor a particular problem confronting an inmate"; outgoing mail, if there is reason to believe it "would facilitate criminal activity." (289, quoting regulations) The fact that the prisoner signs a form acknowledging that his correspondence may be opened and read "should be construed in light of applicable law and the necessities that obviously gave rise to the form. The reason for the regulations the government cites is to assure that prison officials have all the authority they need to maintain institutional security for both inmates and staff, and to further the legitimate objectives of the correctional system. ... He was not signing away any remnant of protection the law otherwise might have afforded him." The government seems to have recognized this in seeking a warrant.

The defendant's challenge to the breadth of the warrant, which was read to authorize examination and copying of all of his incoming and outgoing legal mail, is rejected, even though the court thinks the inspection and in particular the retention of all correspondence was excessive. The court refuses to import the "minimization standards" of federal wiretapping law into what amounts to a "conventional rummaging through papers for evidence." (290) At 290 n. 1: "Therefore, there is, thankfully, no need to address the government's jaw-dropping assertion that it was a minimization of intrusion into privacy for the government to have kept a copy of every item of a prisoner's personal and concededly irrelevant correspondence, both incoming and outgoing."

The court distinguishes telephone monitoring cases because in those the monitoring was done pursuant to an ongoing security-related program. At 292: "No case holds that such a practice, or a review of a prisoner's non-legal mail, may be put in place at the instance of government investigators in order to gather evidence and for reasons having nothing to do with prison security."

The court declines to suppress the copied materials, sought because of the overbreadth of the copying and retention and the lack of express authorization to search in orders extending the warrant. At 293: "It seems to me downright perverse to suppress the fruits of the search based on what was done later with the rinds." At 294: "Mistakes were made, as the morally anemic like to say; but that is all they were--mistakes." See: United States v. Heatley, 41 F.Supp.2d 284 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).

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Related legal case

United States v. Heatley