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Fourth Circuit: Opening of Detainee’s Legal Mail Outside His Presence Violates Right to Free Speech

Before the court was an appeal brought by Grant Haze. Haze alleged that while awaiting trial from July 2011 to September 2013 at the Wake County Public Safety Center and the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, the defendants interfered with his legal mail on at least 15 occasions. His civil rights complaint alleged violations of the First, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. It found that the defendants acted only negligently on the free speech claim, that Haze failed to show injury to support the access to courts claim, and that Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) barred the Fourth and Sixth Amendment claims.

On appeal, Haze’s principal contention was that the defendants violated his First Amendment right to free speech. The Fourth Circuit recognized that opening a person’s legal mail outside of their presence “strips those protected communications of their confidentiality,” inhibiting the incarcerated person’s “‘ability to speak, protest and complain openly, directly, and without reservation with the court.’”

The Fourth Circuit analyzed the claim under the four-prong test in Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). The court rejected the defendants’ argument that because Haze received “contraband — internet printouts of cars, phones, and vacation homes — through non-legal mail; prison officials suspected that Haze had also received contraband through legal mail.”

While receipt of those materials “justifies the opening of his legal mail to check for the presence of contraband,” the defendants failed to “explain, as they must, why they did so outside of Haze’s presence.” Thus, they failed to justify their actions with a legitimate government interest.

That a guard told Haze, “Sue me,” when he complained about showing the defendants were not merely negligent. The court further said “the infringement of Haze’s First Amendment rights itself constitutes an injury.” Finally, it found the right at issue was clearly established, precluding a qualified immunity defense.

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Related legal case

Haze v. Harrison