Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Eleventh Circuit Revives Claim Against Florida Jail That Forced Detainee to Scan Legal Mail Into Computer with Memory Chip

by David M. Reutter

On August 8, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed dismissal of a claim alleging two guards at Florida’s Polk County Jail (PCJ) interfered with Ricky Lee Christmas’ First Amendment right to communicate freely and confidentially with his attorneys by forcing him to scan his legal mail into a computer with a memory chip.

Christmas was held pretrial over two years at PCJ, where his pro se federal suit alleged a lack of recreation, retaliation and violation of U.S. disability rights law, all of which were dismissed by the federal court for the Middle District of Florida, a decision affirmed on appeal by the Eleventh Circuit—except for dismissal of his claims about his legal mail.

“A simple rule has governed prison mail procedures in our Circuit for nearly 50 years: a prison official may not open an inmate’s property marked legal mail outside his presence,” noted the Court. Even then, it can be opened “only for the purpose of permitting that official to check the mail for contraband, not for allowing the official to read the mail,” the Court continued, citing Mitchell v. Peoples, 10 F.4th 1226 (11th Cir. 2021).

Christmas’ complaint alleged that guard Lt. J. Nabors and Sgt. Marsha Hill made him open his legal mail in their presence and scan it into a computer containing “a memory chip.” This presented a novel claim. Because the technology stores the mail, the Court noted, “we can reasonably infer that Nabors and Hill could read Christmas’s legal mail outside his presence.”

Those facts made it “easy to understand why that kind of ability could ‘chill, inhibit, or interfere with’” a prisoner’s “ability to speak, protest, and complain openly to his attorney so as to infringe on his right to free speech,” the Court said, concluding therefore that “Christmas plausibly alleged a First Amendment claim.”

The Court said the claim against Nabors in his official capacity effectively stated a claim against Polk County, too. The allegations, if true, established an official policy that caused the alleged constitutional violation, the Court said, noting “it’s hard to imagine why [PCJ] would even have this technology if not for an official policy.”

The Court further found that Christmas stated individual capacity claims against Nabors and Hill. “A supervisor may be liable for the unconstitutional acts of his subordinates when he personally participates in those acts or when a causal connection exists between his actions and the constitutional deprivation,” the Court said, citing Douglas v. Yates, 535 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 2008). Christmas alleged that Nabors and Hill not only “failed to stop their subordinates from acting unlawfully, but also that Nabors and Hill directed their subordinates to act unlawfully.”

Moreover, the practice continued after Christmas filed grievances on the matter. The Mitchell court held that a prisoner stated a claim against a prison’s mailroom supervisor for violating the legal mail rule when the supervisor “apparently knew about the illegal conduct after [the prisoner] filed grievances, but still failed to stop.”

Dismissal of First Amendment legal mail claims was thus reversed and the case remanded. Christmas was represented before the Court by attorneys Jodi Ann Avila and Adrienne Harreveld of Baker McKenzie LLP in Miami. Back at the district court, Avila was appointed to continue representing Christmas as the case proceeds. See: Christmas v. Nabors, 76 F.4th 1320 (11th Cir. 2023); and USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 8:20-cv-00259.  

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Christmas v. Nabors