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10th Circuit: Prisoner Mail Protected by First Amendment

By Jimmy Franks

In a decision filed December 18, 2008, the 10th Circuit reversed a district court dismissal of a §1983 claim brought by a prisoner in the Saline County Detention Center in Salina, Kansas. The prisoner, Kendall Trent Brown, filed the civil rights claim pro se on March 7, 2007, accusing Saline County Jail, Sheriff Glen F. Kochanowshi and "Officer Nalls" of "mishandling his legal mail and engaging in postal fraud.”

On November 16, 2007, while granting Brown leave to proceed in forma pauperis, the district court ordered him to show cause why summary judgment should not be granted the defendants. The court cited its belief that the jail itself is not a proper defendant and Brown's allegations regarding the individual defendants failed to state a violation actionable under 42 U.S.C §1983.

On March 5, 2008, Brown submitted what amounted to an amended complaint, which dropped Saline County Jail as a defendant while maintaining allegations of abuse of power and postal fraud against Sheriff Kochanowshi and other jail staff. The district court dismissed Brown's complaint on May 23, 2008 for failure to state an actionable claim under §1983.

Upon examination of each of the four initial §1983 claims in Brown's complaint, the 10th Circuit determined the district court erred in its decision by failing to recognize the First Amendment issues related to a prisoner's mail. Brown's allegations against the jail staff for failing to process outgoing mail, placing unreasonable regulations on his mail and barring him from taking his legal mail to the hospital where he was temporarily confined were each concluded to be legitimate First Amendment freedom of speech violations, and, therefore, actionable under §1983. The Circuit declined to examine Brown's postal fraud allegations stating it was "more appropriately cast as a state law fraud claim" as opposed to a due process violation.

In conclusion, the 10th Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.

See: Brown v. Saline County Jail, 303 Fed.Appx. 678, (10th Cir. U.S. App. 2008), 2008 WL 5257136.

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Related legal case

Brown v. Saline County Jail