S.C. inmate fails to prove he has right to Internet access

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An inmate in a Greenville, S.C., jail does not have a constitutional right to a law library or Internet access, a federal district court has ruled.

Marshall Dewitt McGaha filed a federal lawsuit over lack of access to certain materials at Greenville County Detention Center. He contended that he needed access to a law library, certain legal materials — such as cases — and Internet access to help in his legal defense in state criminal court.

On July 7, U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel took a much different view in McGaha v. Baily, adopting the report and recommendation of U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald to dismiss the lawsuit. In federal court, a U.S. magistrate often serves as the initial reviewer from the bench, writing recommendations to federal district judges.

Gergel found no constitutional right to any of the materials McGaha requested. Gergel cited case law from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the principle that “the Constitution of the United States does not require every local jail even to have a law library.”

As for as other legal materials, Gergel found that the website of the Greenville County Clerk of Court showed that McGaha had two attorneys of record from the Greenville County Public Defender’s Office representing him. “Thus, since Plaintiff is represented by counsel in his pending criminal case, he has no need for a law library,” Gergel wrote.

Gergel added that South Carolina is required to provide criminal defendants only with attorneys, not legal-research materials.

Concerning the lack of Internet access: “Plaintiff’s lack of access to the legal materials on the Internet is not a constitutional violation,” Gergel wrote, citing an unpublished federal court decision from Arkansas. That January 2011 decision — Holloway v. Magness — held that the First Amendment does not require “that the government provide telephones, videoconferencing, email, or any of the other marvelous forms of technology that allow instantaneous communication across geographical borders.”

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