Nordstrom v. Ryan

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Rights § 1983
  • Date Filed: 08-11-2014
  • Case #: 12-15738
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Silverman for the Court; Circuit Judge Fletcher; Dissent by Circuit Judge Bybee
  • Full Text Opinion

The Constitution permits prison guards to inspect confidential legal mail for contraband in the presence of the inmate, but it does not allow for the reading of confidential mail.

Scott Nordstrom is an inmate on death row in an Arizona prison. Nordstrom alleges that when he attempted to send a confidential letter to his attorney, a prison guard insisted upon reading the letter, as opposed to simply scanning it for contraband. When Nordstrom explained his concerns to the prison staff, they told him it was within their jurisdiction to read all letters. Nordstrom brought suit claiming that his right to attorney-client confidentiality had been violated and he sought to enjoin the prison from reading any future correspondence to his attorney. The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit began by explaining that when the government has compromised the attorney-client relationship, that interference could violate the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment if it prejudices the defendant in a substantial manner. The panel determined that the reading of an inmate’s legal mail could have a chilling effect on an inmate communicating openly with his or her counsel, which would prejudice the defendant in a substantial manner. The panel went on to explain that in criminal matters, the need for a confidential relationship between a defendant and his counsel is paramount. The effectiveness of the Sixth Amendment diminishes if one is denied the right to private communication with his attorney. The panel explained that the Constitution permits prison guards to inspect mail for contraband in the presence of the inmate, but it does not allow for the reading of confidential legal mail. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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