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Michigan County Jail Loses Appeal on Legal Mail, Settles with ACLU

by Derek Gilna

Officials in Livingston County, Michigan have agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, which argued that a “postcard-only” policy for mail sent to prisoners at the county jail interfered with the ACLU’s confidential communications with potential clients. As part of the settlement, the county agreed to let prisoners receive letters in sealed envelopes marked “legal mail” that are sent by a licensed attorney. Still pending is a suit filed by Prison Legal News challenging the jail’s ban on PLN’s monthly publication.

According to the ACLU, the Livingston County jail had violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by failing to deliver the organization’s letters addressed to individual prisoners and failing to provide notice of the non-delivery. The ACLU moved for a preliminary injunction to require jail officials to deliver its legal mail to prisoners, which was granted by the district court. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.30].

The court found that communications from the ACLU constituted legal mail. On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, the defendants unsuccessfully argued that if that were true, then “the district court erred because it failed to analyze the jail’s mail policies” under Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). In Turner, the Supreme Court wrote that “when a prison regulation impinges on inmates’ constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

However, the Court of Appeals held that because “the ACLU letters at issue are indeed ‘legal mail,’ the Jail must deliver the letters pursuant to, and consistent with, the Jail’s written mail regulations” – which did not require a Turner analysis. The Court also noted that the preliminary injunction would have been upheld under Turner, regardless. “Indeed,” the Sixth Circuit wrote, “rather than bear a rational connection to a legitimate interest, the policies at issue are arbitrary, untenable, and unnecessarily impinge on important First Amendment rights.” See: ACLU Fund of Mich. v. Livingston Cnty., 796 F.3d 636 (6th Cir. 2015), cert. denied.

After the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s preliminary injunction, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to grant cert, Livingston County agreed to settle the case in August 2016, reversing its postcard-only policy for legal mail and paying $150,000 in attorney fees to the ACLU. The lawsuit filed by PLN remains pending, and according to editor Paul Wright, settlement negotiations have not progressed.

“The county has never, in five years of litigation, made any offer to settle the case nor indicated they have any interest in settling,” he said. “I note they settled the ACLU case only after losing in the district court, losing in the appeals court and losing in the U.S. Supreme Court. I suspect that will be the same pattern here. PLN has already prevailed on its due process claim in the district court in our case.”

Wright added, “the jail has vehemently rejected and fought tooth and nail against the prospect that its captive citizens should be allowed to enjoy basic First Amendment freedoms like … writing letters to people, receiving letters, and being able to read books and magazines.” See: PLN v. Livingston County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:11-cv-13460-DPH-MAR. 

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Related legal case

PLN v. Livingston County