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Eleventh Circuit Reverses Finding that Seizure of Prisoner’s Legal Mail Stated Claim

A Georgia federal district court, in denying a motion to dismiss, found an attorney has a Fourth Amendment right to “privacy and possessory interest in letters mailed to him, and that the government may not take and read letters that have been mailed.” However, the Eleventh Circuit reversed on appeal, finding that the letters had not actually been “mailed” and thus no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.

Attorney Mario Williams sued several prison officials related to guard Andrew Russo’s actions between August 8 and 11, 2012 at the Special Management Unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Russo allegedly entered the cell of prisoner Miguel Jackson and “opened, read and took letters” that Jackson had “clearly marked ‘legal mail’ and ‘attorney/client privileged’ on the outside of the envelopes.”

The letters, addressed to Williams, were confiscated and not returned. He sought an arrest warrant for Russo, but the Butts County Superior Court refused to issue one after a probable cause hearing held on August 17, 2012. Williams subsequently filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Russo and Warden Carl Humphrey, Deputy Warden June Bishop and Unit Manager James McMillan for allegedly ordering Russo “to open and read and take” the mail from Jackson’s cell, and for condoning the guard’s actions by not returning the letters.

The focus on Jackson’s correspondence allegedly stemmed from Williams’ representation of Jackson’s wife, who had been barred from visiting her husband by prison officials.

The district court found Fourth Amendment protection has a general rule that “both senders and addressees of packages or other closed containers can reasonably expect that the government will not open them.” Thus, courts have recognized that an addressee has “both a possessory and a privacy interest in a mailed package.”

While “the prison mail system functions according to its own standards,” courts have held that “a letter is generally considered mailed when it is given to a prison official.” Thus, under the mailbox rule, the letters were deemed mailed when Russo took them from Jackson. Consequently, the district court held that at this stage of the litigation, Williams had raised sufficient claims to establish a Fourth Amendment violation and, since the right was clearly established, the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. See: Williams v. Russo, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 5:14-cv-00287-CAR; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4160.

The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal and the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s order on January 22, 2016. The Court of Appeals found that “no case has applied the prison mailbox rule to find that a letter or package had been ‘mailed’ for purposes of creating a Fourth Amendment right, and the district court erred in doing so here.” The lower court had “improperly relied on the mailbox rule” to find that the letters addressed to Williams had been “mailed” when Russo confiscated them from Jackson, the Eleventh Circuit wrote. Thus, since the letters had not been mailed, Williams had no protectable Fourth Amendment interest in them.

Further, the appellate court reversed the denial of qualified immunity. “Because we find that Williams failed to allege a violation of a constitutional right, we need not determine whether the alleged right was clearly established,” the Court of Appeals wrote. On remand, the district court was directed to grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss. See: Williams v. Russo, 636 Fed.Appx. 527 (11th Cir. 2016).

Additional source: Daily Report

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Williams v. Russo

Williams v. Russo