Warden Granted Qualified Immunity for Two-year Visitation Suspension
by David Reutter
A prison official who suspended a prisoner’s visitation privileges was entitled to qualified immunity because, under the facts of the case, the prisoner did not have a clearly established right to visitation, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held.
South Carolina state prisoner Jerome A. Williams received a visitor at the Evans Correctional Institution on March 31, 2007. During the visit, a guard observed the visitor “pass suspected marijuana to Williams,” who reportedly placed it in his pants before walking to the restroom.
Several guards intercepted Williams. He was taken to an area to be strip searched while his visitor was escorted out of the prison. No contraband was found, but a guard said he saw Williams put something in his mouth and swallow. As a result, Williams was placed in a “dry cell” for 72 hours. His excrement was searched for the suspected marijuana, without success. He was not charged with a disciplinary offense.
Despite the lack of contraband, Williams was held in a disciplinary “special housing unit” for a little over two months. Additionally, the warden suspended Williams’ visitation privileges for two years based on the guard’s observations. The visitation privileges of Williams’ visitor were suspended for two years, too, but that was not at issue in the case.
Williams filed a civil rights action in December 2008 that alleged several constitutional violations. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on his visitation suspension claim, which was one of the claims at issue before the Fourth Circuit (other claims went to a jury trial, which found in favor of the defendants).
The appellate court noted that Williams had failed to cite any cases clearly establishing a constitutional right to visitation grounded in the First, Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments. Thus, “We conclude that the prison warden who imposed the [visitation suspension] is shielded by qualified immunity from the inmate’s claim for monetary damages because, under the facts presented here, the inmate did not have a clearly established constitutional right to visitation.”
The Fourth Circuit noted that in Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003) [PLN, Oct. 2003, p.18], the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a prisoner’s claim that a two-year visitation suspension constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court did, however, acknowledge that an Eighth Amendment analysis might differ if visitation privileges were denied permanently “or for a ‘much longer period,’ or ‘in an arbitrary manner to a particular inmate.’”
The appellate court also found that Williams’ complaint failed to state a declaratory judgment claim challenging the visitation suspension policy, and since his visitation privileges had since been restored he was not entitled to injunctive relief. The Court of Appeals further held the case did not fall within the narrow exception to the mootness doctrine.
The district court’s summary judgment order was therefore affirmed; Williams petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on February 24, 2014. See: Williams v. Ozmint, 716 F.3d 801 (4th Cir. 2013), cert. denied.
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Related legal case
Williams v. Ozmint
|716 F.3d 801 (4th Cir. 2013), cert. denied
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition