11th Circ. Revives Claim Over Inmate's Mail To Attorneys

By Aaron West | August 9, 2023, 9:44 PM EDT ·

The Eleventh Circuit on Tuesday kept alive a Florida inmate's constitutional claim against two county jail employees, saying the prisoner's argument that his legal mail shouldn't be scanned into a computer because others might read it shouldn't have been dismissed by the district court.

The court in its published opinion said that Rickey Christmas, who had sued the employees pro se in 2020 for violating his constitutional rights with its mail-scanning policy, among other claims, was right in arguing the district court shouldn't have dismissed his claim because his argument was "plausible on its face."

"Though Christmas does not know whether anyone other than he read his mail, he worried that the jail could and may have, since it had access to the computer into which he had scanned his mail," the court wrote. "Because that claim is plausible on its face, we hold that the district court erred in dismissing it."

Several other of Christmas' claims surrounding his access to outdoor recreation at the jail were rejected by the court.

In finding that the district court was wrong to dismiss his mail complaint, the Eleventh Circuit said that the jail's mail-scanning policy "sufficiently chills, inhibits, or interferes with" an inmate's ability to speak openly with his attorney and infringes his right to free speech, in contradiction of binding case law.

The appeal stems from Christmas' complaint surrounding the jail's policy of copying his legal mail using a machine with a memory chip. Sometimes the jail would provide Christmas with only a copy of his legal mail. But other times, two jail employees Christmas sued in both their official and individual capacities uploaded the mail to a central database and Christmas viewed it on a computer.

Christmas alleged that his First Amendment rights were violated by the latter process, which meant that jail employees were able to read the contents of his mail — including discovery and anything his attorneys sent him. However, the district court dismissed his complaint in 2021 for failure to state a claim.

While it did affirm the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida's dismissal of most of Christmas' claims Tuesday, the Eleventh Circuit said the mail-scanning claim was worth taking another look at.

"Although Christmas did not allege that [defendants] opened his mail outside of his presence, he did allege that they could access his legal mail outside of his presence in the future," the court wrote in its opinion, going on to explain the scanning technology and how the memory capabilities it had could plausibly allow for employees to read his mail. "That kind of technology stores a prisoner's mail and, at least on the allegations in Christmas' complaint, enables jail officials to access a prisoner's mail outside his presence."

U.S. Circuit Judges Robin S. Rosenbaum, Elizabeth L. Branch and Andrew L. Brasher sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.

Christmas is represented by Jodi Avila and Adrienne Harreveld of Baker McKenzie.

The defendants are represented by Jonathan Trohn of Campbell Trohn Tamayo & Aranda PA.

The case is Rickey Lee Christmas v. Lieutenant J. Nabors and Sergeant Marsha Hill, case number 21-14230, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

--Editing by Daniel King.

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