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Third Circuit Revives Pennsylvania Prisoner’s Lawsuit Over Censorship of Incoming Mail Containing Key Evidence

by Matt Clarke and Dale Chappell

On August 9, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of a prisoner’s lawsuit alleging his due-process and access-to-courts rights were violated when the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) failed to notify him it had censored a letter mailed to him—one which contained exculpatory evidence in his case.

Thirty years ago, Steven Vogt was convicted of first-degree murder for being part of a group that took a man to a quarry, pushed him off the ledge into the water and then rolled a “huge rock” in behind him, drowning him. Another member of the group, Arthur McClearn, testified against Vogt at his trial. Vogt was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

When McClearn was near the end of his life, he sent Vogt a letter in which he recanted his trial testimony and said Vogt was “passed out in the car” and “did not go to the quarry.” Thus, the letter said, Vogt did not have anything to do with the murder.

But Vogt’s prison rejected the letter because it lacked a return address. Six months later, when Vogt contacted a U.S. Postal Service reclamation center looking for a different mailing, he got back several letters, including McClearn’s. By then, McClearn was six months dead.

This prompted Vogt to file a grievance, which was denied by the prison as untimely-filed. With this denial, Vogt filed for relief under the state’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), claiming actual innocence based on the letter. That was also denied as filed too late.

Vogt then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against DOC Secretary John Wetzel and an unknown prison mailroom employee alleging the rejection without notice violated his constitutional rights to due process and access to court. In reply, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss.

While that motion was pending, though, a state court vacated and remanded the order dismissing Vogt’s post-conviction petition. The District Court then dismissed his due-process claim with prejudice and the access-to-courts claim without prejudice, saying it was not ripe for review until before his PCRA application was re-heard.

With the assistance of pro bono attorneys Tadhg Dooley and David R. Roth of the New Haven, Connecticut, firm of Wiggin & Dana, along with Jordan Alston-Harmon and Kamilyn Choi of the Yale Law School, Vogt appealed.

The Third Circuit took note of Vogt’s argument, both in the District Court and on appeal, that the question was not whether the prison could censor the letter, but whether it could do so without notice. The Circuit Court agreed with Vogt that, pursuant to Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S.396 (1974), such a notice-less censorship violated his due-process rights.

Specifically, the Circuit Court held that the District Dourt erred in holding that Vogt did not have a protected liberty interest in communicating by mail. Further, Vogt’s liberty interest is protected by a requirement of “minimal procedural safeguards.”

As the Circuit Court stated, “Vogt alleged the prison rejected his mail without notice. And he demanded damages because that rejection violated his due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
“In short,” it continued, “the failure of Vogt’s pro se complaint to mention the word ‘liberty’ did not forfeit his Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. He alleged his right to procedural due process was violated when the prison rejected his mail without notice. The bottom line is that his allegation was enough.”

To be clear, the Circuit Court explained that Vogt’s claims were “distinct” and that the District Court erred when it “collapsed” his two claims into one. The District Court had concluded that Vogt lacked a liberty interest for due process purposes because the prison’s mail policy did not violate the First Amendment.

The Circuit Court, therefore, vacated and remanded the denial of Vogt’s due process claim, and ordered the District Court to stay the access-to-courts claim until the PCRA court made a ruling on Vogt’s actual innocence claim, which was reopened during his federal court proceedings. See: Vogt v. Wetzel, 8 F.4th 182 (3d Cir.).

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Related legal case

Vogt v. Wetzel