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ACLU Granted Preliminary Injunction Requiring Michigan Jail to Deliver Legal Mail

ACLU Granted Preliminary Injunction Requiring Michigan Jail to Deliver Legal Mail

by David Reutter

A federal district court in Michigan granted a preliminary injunction that requires officials at the Livingston County Jail (LCJ) to deliver letters sent by the ACLU to specific prisoners and to return the mail if a prisoner is no longer in custody. The defendants appealed and the Sixth Circuit declined to stay the injunction.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in March 2014, which was assigned as a companion case to Prison Legal News v. Livingston County Sheriff Bob Bezotte, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:11-cv-13460-DPH-MAR. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.19].

Both PLN and the ACLU are challenging the constitutionality of the LCJ’s postcard-only mail policy. The ACLU alleged that jail officials violated the First Amendment by blocking and reading its letters sent to prisoners; it also asserted due process violations.

While the LCJ’s mail policy includes procedures for legal mail, the ACLU said the jail “does not allow ACLU attorneys to write letters to inmates regarding the constitutionality of the conditions of confinement including letters that would address the constitutionality of the postcard-only policy itself.” Additionally, LCJ officials failed to “notify either the ACLU or the inmates to whom the legal mail is addressed that the mail was not being delivered to its intended residents and ... opened, read, and shared the legal mail sent by an ACLU attorney to an inmate who no longer resides at the jail.”

In an effort to obtain information from prisoners concerning the jail’s postcard-only policy, the ACLU had sent 25 letters clearly marked “Legal Mail” to individually-named LCJ prisoners. The letters and a form to complete and return to the ACLU were received at the jail on or about February 21, 2014. No responses were received.

In a deposition taken in PLN’s case, an LCJ official testified that the jail does not “deliver mail sent by an attorney to an inmate unless the mail is sent by the inmate’s ‘attorney of record’ on an ongoing court case.” Further, mail from lawyers outside the county who write to four or five prisoners and letters from attorneys that the LCJ considers to be a “mass mailing” are not delivered. Finally, a letter sent by the ACLU to a prisoner no longer housed at the LCJ was opened, read and scanned, and sent to an attorney representing the jail. That attorney then filed the letter in a pleading entered on the court’s public docket.

LCJ officials claimed the ACLU was trying to “solicit inmates for the furtherance of [its] own political agenda.”

The ACLU moved for a preliminary injunction to protect its First Amendment right to communicate with prisoners at the jail, and the motion was granted in May 2014.

“A prisoner’s interest in unimpaired, confidential communication with an attorney is an integral component of the judicial process and mail from an attorney implicates a prisoner’s protected legal mail rights,” the district court wrote. See: ACLU of Michigan v. County of Livingston, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:14-cv-11213-DPH-RSW.

The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal and requested a stay of the court’s order. The Sixth Circuit denied the motion for a stay on July 10, 2014 after considering “the same four factors a district court considers when granting a preliminary injunction.”

Citing Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), rev’d in part on other grounds, Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989), the Court of Appeals wrote that “[b]oth parties to the correspondence have an interest in securing [the communication], and censorship of the communication between them necessarily impinges on the interest of each.”

The Sixth Circuit noted that unlike mail from private attorneys and courts, it had “never squarely addressed whether mail from the ACLU is ‘legal mail.’ But, on balance, our precedent suggests that it would be, provided that it is from a licensed attorney and designated as privileged information. The envelopes in this case contained clear statements that they were from a licensed Michigan attorney and that they were legal mail.”

Concluding the defendants would not be irreparably harmed if they were required to deliver the ACLU’s letters sent to individual prisoners and to return (rather than opening and reading) mail addressed to prisoners no longer held at the LCJ, the Court of Appeals denied a stay of the district court’s preliminary injunction order. See: ACLU of Michigan v. County of Livingston, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 14-1617.

The lawsuits filed against the LCJ by Prison Legal News and the ACLU of Michigan both remain pending.

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Related legal case

ACLU of Michigan v. County of Livingston