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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rules that Duval County Jail officials’ alleged reading of inmate mail was a long-recognized constitutional violation barring dismissal of plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights case on grounds of qualified immunity

On August 26, 2021, in Mitchell v. Smith, et al., No. 19-14505, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. district court decision which denied the defendant Duval County Jail officials’ motion to dismiss a prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights case on the grounds of qualified immunity. The plaintiff claimed in his pro se complaint that jail personnel were reading his legal mail in violation of his constitutional rights. The Eleventh Circuit determined that the alleged intrusion into his confidential legal mail would constitute violations of both the right of access to the courts and the right to free speech, citing in support Al-Amin v. Smith, 511 F.3d 1317, 1333 (11th Cir. 2008), and Taylor v. Sterrett, 532 F.2d 462 (5th Cir. 1976). The Eleventh Circuit also determined that the unlawfulness of the alleged conduct was clearly established at the time, noting that the position of the Eleventh and predecessor Fifth Circuit on this issue has been constant for almost fifty years. In Taylor v. Sterret, the Fifth Circuit held that inmates and pretrial detainees have a right of access to the courts that includes the protection of “uninhibited, confidential communications” with their attorneys, which required that jail officials could open—but not read—legal mail and even then, only in the inmate’s presence. 532 F.2d at 478.