Federal judge rejects prisoner’s claim over opened mail

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A federal inmate in Kentucky has failed to state a cognizable free-speech claim over prison officials’ opening of his mail from his attorney outside his presence. Although prison officials should not have opened the mail in the way they did, a federal court ruled, their action did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

Inmate Edryck Dante Mooney of the United States Penitentiary McCreary in Pine Knot alleged that in August 2010, his attorney sent him mail concerning legal matters. Prison officials are not supposed to open an inmate’s legal mail unless the inmate is present, but Mooney alleged that several officers did so and rummaged through the packet. Prison officials contended that Mooney’s attorney failed to label the packet properly as legal-related.

After exhausting  his administrative claims, Mooney filed a suit pro se (by himself) in federal district court, alleging a violation of several constitutional rights, including First Amendment rights.

On May 4, U.S. District Judge Henry R. Wilhoit Jr. dismissed his claim in Mooney v. Wilson. Wilhoit acknowledged that inmates can state First Amendment claims regarding interference with their mail. However, he noted that such a claim requires “actual injury,” defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as “actual prejudice with respect to contemplated or existing litigation, such as the inability to meet a filing deadline or to present a claim.”

Examples of actual injury would include a case being dismissed, an inability to file a lawsuit, or missing a court deadline. Mooney failed to show how the opening of the mail from his attorney met this “actual injury” standard, the judge found.

“Because Mooney alleges no actual injury resulting from the alleged action, he fails to state a First Amendment claim,” Wilhoit concluded.

The case illustrates the principle that not every wrong or improper action by a prison official will rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

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