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Third Circuit rules on confiscation of materials

•  National News     updated  2008/08/01 08:42


The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Thursday affirmed a decision to dismiss claims filed by fifteen current and former inmates alleging that various employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections violated their constitutional rights when they confiscated inmates' legal materials. After a DOC inmate filed fraudulent liens against a state court judge, a superintendent and the DOC secretary in June 2005, the DOC banned all materials related to the copyrighting of names, the filing of liens, and filings under the Uniform Commercial Code. Upon a search of the plaintiff inmates' cells, prison officials discovered these contraband documents and subsequently confiscated all of the inmates' legal materials, including items that had not been designated as contraband. The inmates filed suit, alleging that the seizures violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of Due Process as well as their right to access the courts and possess publications and legal materials under the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals dismissed the inmates' Due Process claims, noting that prison officials provided the inmates with three separate opportunities to reclaim their non-contraband property following the seizures, explaining that:

[A]n unauthorized intentional deprivation of property by prison officials does not violate the Due Process Clause if a meaningful postdeprivation remedy for the loss is available.

In affirming the lower court's determination that the DOC's confiscation did not unreasonably deprive the inmates of their right to possess publications and legal materials, the Third Circuit found that:

In light of the DOC’s experience with the inmate’s June 2005 filing, which demonstrated that fraudulent UCC filings are easy to file but burdensome to remove, along with the research that informed their judgment on this policy, we conclude that the defendants’ decision to engage in preemptive action in this case was reasonable

The court dismissed the inmates' claims that the seizures blocked their access to the courts, ruling that their initial pleadings were insufficient to support a claim. The court found that "the plaintiffs’ claim rested solely on the ground that the defendants confiscated their legal materials, contraband and non-contraband alike" and did not show an actual injury or that the inmates possessed no other remedy to compensate them for their lost claims.

Jurisdictions across the country have seen an increase in the malicious filing of fraudulent liens, which can cause great hardship for the affected parties. Some experts attribute the rise in such filings to a bizarre and convoluted new scam known as "redemption", in which participants are told that every American has a "strawman" account created by the the US government. Participants pay large sums to obtain fraudulent instructions said to be grounded in the UCC. These materials claim to show how to access the government money in that strawman account, and participants are encouraged to exact financial revenge against government officials. In February, a Texas inmate was sentenced to 12 years in prison after he filed fraudulent liens against a US District Judge and Assistant US Attorney involved in the prosecution of his initial drug convictions.



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