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Notice Required for Rejected Packages BOP Warden Denied Qualified Immunity

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has affirmed the denial of qualified immunity for a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) warden accused of denying a prisoner procedural due process in connection with the rejection of two packages.

While Vernon Bonner was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca, Minnesota, his attorney sent him two packages. Both packages contained trial transcripts and other materials that Bonner needed to pursue litigation; however, they were rejected by prison officials. He was not provided notice of the rejections, and only learned of the rejections from his attorney.

Bonner sued Warden T.C. Outlaw, arguing that Outlaw’s failure to notify him that his incoming mail had been rejected was a violation of procedural due process. Outlaw moved to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim, and invoked a defense of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion and Outlaw’s claim of qualified immunity, holding that the right at issue – for a prisoner to be notified when incoming correspondence is rejected – was clearly established. Outlaw appealed.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed. In Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), the Supreme Court held that prisoners have a liberty interest in uncensored communication by letter. Infringement of that interest or a decision to “withhold delivery of a particular letter must be accompanied by minimum procedural safeguards.” As such, Procunier approved a requirement that prisoners, and the sender, be notified of mail rejections and that they be given a reasonable opportunity to contest the decision.

Outlaw attempted to distinguish Procunier’s notice requirement, arguing that notification of rejected correspondence only applies to “letters” and not “packages.” The Eighth Circuit disagreed.

“The reasoning of Procunier applies to all forms of correspondence addressed to an inmate,” the appellate court wrote. “Nothing about the reasoning of Procunier justifies treating packages differently than letters for purposes of the notice that should be given an inmate when correspondence addressed to that inmate is rejected.” The Eighth Circuit further noted that courts had routinely rejected a distinction between “letters” and “packages” for the purpose of notice, citing decisions from the Fourth, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits.

Outlaw tried to justify the lack of notice by relying on BOP regulations that purportedly do not require notice to prisoners when packages are rejected. But as the Court of Appeals made clear, “the constitutionality of ... conduct is governed by case law, not [prison] regulations.”

Finally, the appellate court rejected Outlaw’s argument that the more restrictive standard in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) applied instead of Procunier. “We doubt Turner’s applicability to the restriction of a specific constitutional right, e.g., notice, the Supreme Court has already declared applicable to a given situation,” the Eighth Circuit wrote.
Further, even assuming Turner did apply, the lack of notice for rejected packages would not withstand constitutional scrutiny as “there is no governmental interest advanced by the regulation, inmates do not have alternative means of receiving notice, and there are not additional burdens placed on prison officials by having to give notice.”

Accordingly, the district court’s denial of qualified immunity for Outlaw was affirmed and the case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Bonner v. Outlaw, 552 F.3d 673 (8th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Bonner v. Outlaw