Thursday, February 10, 2011

Appeals Court Saws Through Prison Bar of Publication for Inmates

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth CircuitImage via WikipediaThe U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit a week ago or so in Hrdlicka v. Reniff (Case Nos. 09-15768, 09-16956), reversed a district court's grant of summary judgment and restored the First Amendment lawsuits brought by the publisher of Crime, Justice & America ("CJA") against two correctional facilities that barred distribution of unsolicited copies of the publication to inmates.

Hrdlicka, a former bail bondsman, has published 14 editions of CJA since its inception in 2002, distributing more than a million copies to inmates in 13 states, including 32 county jails in California. When sheriffs in Sacramento and Butte Counties balked at circulating the free magazine to inmates for safety reasons, suggesting that the publication could be used by prisoners to clog toilets and start fires, Hrdlicka sued on First Amendment grounds.

In reinstating the lawsuits tossed by a federal trial court judge, the Ninth Circuit relied on a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, that laid out four factors to determine whether correctional facility regulations that impact the First Amendment rights of inmates are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns, such as security. Those factors include whether the regulation rationally involves a legitimate and neutral government interest; whether alternatives are available to exercise the First Amendment right; whether accommodating the right will affect prison resources and whether regulation alternatives demonstrate the restriction was an exaggerated response by authorities.

The Appeals Court wrote: "We cannot determine as a matter of law that Defendants have justified banning the unsolicited distribution of CJA to county jail inmates under the four-factor Turner test." The appellate court noted that the defendants had not shown they could not work with CJA to establish distribution schedules that would minimize the drain on prison resources.

In the end, the Ninth Circuit noted that the publication is distributed without problems in 60 counties throughout the U.S. and pointed out that publications, such as USA Today and the Sacramento Bee, circulate among inmates in Butte and Sacramento Counties without the safety and security problems about which the defendants expressed concern in the CJA case.

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