On January 22th, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Williams v. Russo et al. [i], which serves as instructive concerning Fourth Amendment protection in a prison inmate’s mail that is addressed to, but not yet mailed, to the inmate’s attorney. The relevant facts of Williams, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

Mario Williams brought suit against Defendants alleging that Defendants Humphrey, Bishop, and McMillan ordered Defendant Russo to open, read, and take attorney-client privileged mail addressed to him from prisoner Miguel Jackson’s prison cell. Specifically, Williams alleged that between August 8, 2012 and August 11, 2012, Russo opened, read, took, and kept privileged mail from Jackson’s prison cell that belonged to Williams because it was addressed to him and marked “legal mail” and “attorney-client privileged.” Williams further alleged that because Humphrey, Bishop, and McMillan failed to turn over the privileged mail to Williams and failed to discipline Russo for his actions (which were in violation of prison rules), that supervisory liability under § 1983 applied to the three “Supervisors.”

Williams argued that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy and a property interest in the contents of the two envelopes labeled attorney-client privileged, which were addressed to him and located in Jackson’s prison cell. Williams argued that Russo and the Supervisors violated Georgia Department of Corrections’ policies and procedures in place regarding mail, and violated Williams’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from the unlawful search and seizure of mail addressed to him. [ii]

Williams, the attorney for the inmate who wrote and addressed the letter, Jackson, filed suit and alleged that when Russo removed the mail from Jackson’s cell, the mail was considered “mailed” under the “mail box rule” and therefore, Williams, as the addressee had a Fourth Amendment right to privacy in the mail.  The district court agreed and denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss and qualified immunity.

The defendant appealed the denial of qualified immunity to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  There were two issues before the court.  The first issue was whether the district court erred in determining that Williams had a protected Fourth Amendment right in mail addressed to him and taken from a client’s prison cell.  The second issue was, if the court determines that the Williams did have such a right, was that right clearly established such that a reasonable prison official should have known that his conduct was unconstitutional.

The court then set out to determine if Williams had Fourth Amendment protection in mail addressed to him from his client when the prison guard removed the mail from the client’s cell.  The district court applied the mailbox rule to determine that Williams did have such a protection.  The court of appeals noted that the mailbox rule was created to help inmates who were pro se (representing themselves) in court.  This rules, simply put, states that court filings from pro se inmates in jail are considered “filed” for court purposes the moment the inmate loses control of the filing by turning it over to prison officials to be mailed.  The purpose of this rule was to put inmates who were acting pro se on the same footing as those represented by counsel regarding filing court documents.

Regarding application of the mailbox rule to mail addressed to an attorney by an inmate, the court of appeals stated:

Defendants assert, and we agree, that no case has applied the prison mailbox rule to find that a letter or package had been “mailed” for purposes of creating a Fourth Amendment right, and the district court erred in doing so here. The mailbox rule only applies to (1) court filings (2) submitted by pro se prisoners. Neither element exists here. Jackson was represented by Williams and was not proceeding pro se, and the envelopes were not alleged to contain court filings. The mailbox rule does not apply. [iii] [emphasis added]

Further, the court of appeals also stated:

[T]he Fourth Amendment does not apply to the contents of a prison cell. Hudson vPalmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526, 104 S.Ct. 3194, 3200 (1984). In Hudson, the Supreme Court held that “society is not prepared to recognize as legitimate any subjective expectation of privacy that a prisoner might have in his prison cell and that, accordingly, the Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches does not apply within the confines of the prison cell.” Id. [iv] [emphasis added]

Thus, the court of appeals held the district court improperly applied the mailbox rule in Williams’ case, as the letter had not yet been placed in the mail.  Further, inmates do not have Fourth Amendment protection in a prison cell regarding searches.  Therefore, Williams did not have Fourth Amendment protection in the mail at the time it was opened and read.

Since the court held that there was no Fourth Amendment violation in this case, they did not need to examine whether the law was clearly established.

The decision of the district court denying the motion to dismiss was reversed.


Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.



[i] No. 15-10277 (11th Cir. Decided January 22, 2016 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 1-3

[iii] Id. at 8

[iv] Id. at 10

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