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United States: Inmate Lacked Constitutional Privacy Protections to Suppress Incriminating Statement in Letter Seized by Authorities

(Aug. 20, 2009) The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner in a maximum security prison did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy to protect his mail from being searched and a letter with an incriminating statement from being used as evidence.

A state prisoner was accused of the murder of a fellow inmate and subsequently moved to a maximum security facility for prisoners with a “pattern of violence or institutional misconduct.” State investigators probing the murder obtained a “mail cover,” which allowed them to intercept, open, and copy the prisoner's mail. One of the letters from the accused they intercepted included the statement “I killed someone in prison.” The accused sought to suppress introduction of the letter into evidence, arguing in part that the seizure was a violation of his right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected the prisoner's claim. It noted that the accused had been removed to a maximum security prison, which had fewer mail privileges than other correctional facilities, and that prison policies required prisoner mail to be submitted unsealed for inspection, even without the request for a mail cover. Given these procedures and the type of institution in question, the court held that the accused had no reasonable expectation of privacy. The court also held that even if the accused had a legitimate privacy right, it was outweighed by the prison's security needs. (McFarlin v. State, No. 08-119 (July 17, 2009), available at http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2009/119a08.pdf.)