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Oregon Prisoner's Legal Mail Claims Dismissed

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's dismissal of a prisoner's action, challenging the opening his legal mail outside his presence.

After Oregon prisoner Jacob Barrett was transferred to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OKSP), Oregon attorney Charles Simmons continued to represent him in a collateral appeal of his conviction and several civil actions, including a tort action against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. "The tort case 'being prepared,' alleges that OKSP staff are committing, assault and battery against petitioner and 'aiding and promoting racist gangs to assault' him."

According to Barrett, beginning in 2008 Oklahoma prison officials began opening, reading and confiscating his legal mail from Simmons.

Barrett filed a state habeas corpus petition in Oregon but the trial court dismissed the petition for failure to state a claim. On appeal, the court found that Barrett "presents what generously could be called... the right to counsel, the right to access to courts, and the right to equal treatment. None of the arguments is persuasive."

First, the Court rejected Barrett's right to counsel claim, because "there is no right to counsel in either habeas corpus or post-conviction relief cases under the Sixth Amendment or... the Oregon Constitution... And, of course, there is no such relief in tort cases."

The court then affirmed the denial of Barrett's access to court claim, finding that he alleged no facts — and made no legal argument — establishing the habeas corpus jurisdictional requirement that "there is a need for immediate judicial scrutiny and there are no other plain, adequate or speedy remedies available." Citing Keenan v. Peterson, 92 Or App 703, 704, 759 P2d 1140 (1988), vacated and remanded 307 Or 323.767 P2d 441 (1989), the court determined that it was doubtful that Barrett could allege the necessary facts because "an injunction proceeding, an action for declaratory judgment or a mandamus proceeding would be sufficiently timely to adjudicate petitioner's claims."

Finally, the court rejected Barrett's equal protection claim, finding that "inmates are not a true class in this instance" and, therefore, the Oregon equal protection clause is inapplicable. Likewise, the court denied Barrett's federal equal protection argument that "the right to be represented by counsel is a fundamental right," subject to strict scrutiny. The court reiterated that "representation by counsel in tort or post-conviction cases is not a constitutional right at all, much less a fundamental one." See: Barrett v. Williams, 247 Or App 309, 270 P. 3d 285 (2011).

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Related legal case

Barrett v. Williams