“Prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to be present when legal mail related to a criminal matter is inspected,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently held. See: Mangiaracina v. Penzone, No. 14-15271 (9th Cir. 2017).

Nick Mangiaracina, an Arizona prisoner, sued jail officials after his properly marked legal mail was opened twice. Mangiaracina filed grievances about the opening of his legal mail. Mangiaracina also alleged that jail staff told him that they“’can open legal mail outside our presence if they want to,’ that there is no law against it, and that ‘they just do it in our presence as a courtesy.’”

While Mangiaracina’s legal mail was only opened twice outside his presence, the Ninth Circuit held that “even isolated incidents of improper mail opening may, in appropriate circumstances, be sufficient to allege a Sixth Amendment violation.”

Jail officials argued that Mangiaracina was also required to allege that his mail was actually read by guards, but the Ninth Circuit disagreed.

“If the practice of opening legal mail in the presence of the prisoner is designed to prevent correctional officers from reading it, then the natural corollary is that a prisoner whose mail is opened outside his presence has no way of knowing whether it had been (permissibly) inspected or (impermissibly) read. In other words, Mangiaracina could not in good faith have alleged that jail employees had read his mail, since he had no basis for knowing what had happened to his mail prior to delivery,” the court wrote.

The court also concluded that jail officials could not “identify any legitimate penological interest that would be served by opening legal mail outside Mangiaracina’s presence,” citing the jail’s own policy that required legal mail to be opened in the presence of inmates. “Defendants have identified no reason in their briefing for deviating from this policy. No special deference is therefore required,” the court held.

The district court’s dismissal of Mangiaracina’s suit was accordingly reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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