(CN) – The 7th Circuit rejected a Wisconsin inmate’s claim that guards violated his constitutional rights by opening his legal mail without allowing him to be present.
Cesar Guajardo-Palma sued the New Lisbon Correctional Institution, claiming mail handlers intercepted and opened letters addressed to him about legal proceedings.
Prison guards regularly inspect mail to ensure that the contents are not contraband or communications with criminal cohorts.
Wisconsin law requires that mail from attorneys and certain officials and organizations may be opened only in the inmate’s presence.
The nine letters sent to Guajardo-Palma were from courts or agencies, not from his lawyer. Circuit Judge Richard Posner described them as “not the kind of documents whose perusal by prison officials would give them an edge in litigation.”
“The plaintiff points to the sheer number of legal letters to him that were opened out of his presence as evidence of a practice of opening legal mail,” Posner wrote.
“But as long as the prison confines itself to opening letters that either are public or if private still are not of a nature that would give the reader insights into the prisoner’s legal strategy, the practice is harmless and may be justified by the volume of such mail that a litigious prisoner can generate,” Posner wrote for the three-judge panel in Chicago.
The practice intercepting the legal mail of civil litigants is subject to the same “harmless-error” analysis as the Supreme Court outlined for criminal litigants.
The panel viewed the interception of legal mail as a potential violation of due-process rights, rather than a free-speech violation, as other circuits have found.
“[S]ince the purpose of confidential communication with one’s lawyer is to win a case rather than to enrich the marketplace of ideas, it seems more straightforward to base the concern with destroying that confidentiality on the right of access to the courts,” Posner wrote.
He noted that the prison may have violated Wisconsin law by opening Guajardo-Palma’s legal mail in his absence, but held that “a violation of state law is not a ground for a federal civil rights suit.”
The panel affirmed dismissal of Guajardo-Palma’s constitutional claims.