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California Appeals Court Holds Habeas Action Over Censorship of Tattoo Magazine Mooted By Delivery

by Matt Clarke

On June 8, 2021, a California court of appeals held that a prisoner’s habeas corpus challenging San Quentin State Prison’s withholding of eight issues of Artists Magazine was mooted when the prison allowed him to receive the censored issues.

California Code of Regulations, title 15, section 3006(c)(l7) prohibits state prisoners from possessing photos, drawings or magazines depicting frontal nudity which is defined as “fully exposed female breasts or the genitalia of either gender.” It contains an exception for educational, artistic, medical and scientific materials “approved by the institution head or their designee on a case-by-case basis.”

On June 15, 2015, California prisoner Richard Valdez received a mail disapproval notification from the San Quentin mail room stating that an issue of Artists was disallowed due to frontal nudity. His administrative appeals were denied at every level.

Months later, Valdez received a second mail disapproval notification for the September 2015 issue of Artists for the same reason. His first level administrative appeal was “cancelled” as duplicative of his June 2015 appeal. The mail room withheld another seven issues through March 2018. Valdez did not attempt administrative appeals as he believed they would also have been cancelled. However, he filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. As in his administrative appeal, he alleged mail room staff were misapplying section 3006(c)(l7) by failing to consider the artistic exception in section 3006(c)(l7)(B)(2).

After the prison allowed Valdez to receive the June 2015 issue, the court denied the petition, holding it was moot as to that issue and Valdez had failed to exhaust administrative remedies on the other issues. Valdez filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the court of appeals.

After the court issued a show cause order, the warden replied that the petition was moot because Valdez had been allowed to receive the remaining eight withheld issues. The warden also alleged that the mail room staff had received additional training in how to apply section 3006(c)(l7)(B)(2) and the prison system had all California prisons to properly apply the exception.

Valdez argued that the issue was of substantial and continuing public interest and capable of repetition yet evading review and therefore should not be dismissed as moot. The court disagreed, holding that since Valdez did not challenge the validity of the statute, but only its application to the nine issues he had already received, there was no justiciable issue left to be decided. Valdez’s suspicion that the prison might resume its previous practices in the future was insufficient to keep the controversy alive. Therefore, the petition was dismissed as moot. See: In re Valdez, 2021 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3720. 

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Related legal case

In re Valdez