Arizona Department of Corrections Can't Read Prisoner Legal Mail, Appeals Court Says
A death-row inmate's fight against the Arizona Department of Corrections reading his letters to his attorney lives on.
A court had initially dismissed Scott Nordstrom's lawsuit seeking to prevent the ADC from reading legal mail, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week to reverse the dismissal, saying Nordstrom's allegations, if true, would be a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights.
"We think it's the correct decision, and it's outrageous that the Arizona Department of Corrections thinks it can read confident mail between attorneys and their clients," Prison Law Office executive director Donald Specter tells New Times.
See also: -Robert Jones, Seven-Time Murderer, Executed
Nordstrom was sentenced to death for his role in a pair of deadly armed robberies in Tucson in 1996. He and Robert Jones combined to kill two people at a smoke shop, and two weeks later combined to kill four while robbing a firefighters' union hall. Jones was executed in October.
Nordstrom filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections after alleging that a prison guard read a letter Nordstrom had written to the court-appointed attorney representing him in the appeal of his conviction and death sentence.
Although state prison policy says legal mail "shall not be read or censored but shall be inspected for contraband and sealed in the presence of the inmate," ADC Director Charles Ryan responded to Nordstrom's complaint, saying his staff was not prohibited from reading such mail in order to check for contraband.
The appeals court's majority opinion states:
"A prison is no ordinary gated community It's a tough place. Corrections officials obviously have good reason to be on the lookout for contraband, escape plans, and other mischief that could jeopardize institutional security. Officials likewise have every right to inspect an inmate's outgoing legal mail for such suspicious features as maps of the prison yard, the times of guards' shift changes, and the like. Prison officials know what to look for. But inspecting letters and reading them are two different things, as the Supreme Court recognized . . .
"What prison officials don't have the right to do is read a confidential letter from an inmate to his lawyer. This is because it is highly likely that a prisoner would not feel free to confide in his lawyer such things as incriminating or intimate personal information - as is his Sixth Amendment right to do - if he knows that the guards are reading his mail."
This decision doesn't force the ADC to change its policy on reading legal mail, but it does revive Nordstrom's lawsuit over the issue.
Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.