The Second Circuit for the first time outlines the legal standards governing the rights of sex offenders in civil confinement whose mail and other personal media items are reviewed to ensure they do not contain inappropriate material.
The case is Ahlers v. Rabinowitz, decided on April 6. After plaintiff was released from prison, he was sent to a civil confinement. The government can do this because plaintiff was a sex offender. While in civil confinement, officials there seized plaintiff's DVD's and CD's and also reviewed his mail, holding onto some of it. He sues under the Fourth Amendment, alleging that these seizures were unreasonable.
The Court of Appeals says that plaintiff cannot state a claim. The Second Circuit (Jacobs, Wesley and Cabranes) notes that "To determine the substantive rights of a person involuntarily committed to a state institution, the interests of the individual are balanced against the interests of the state.We have not previously undertaken to perform that analysis with regard to the Fourth Amendment right of civilly committed persons to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures."
Writing on a fresh slate, the Court of Appeals has several holdings. First, while Ahlers does not claim entitlement to possess sexually explicit media, he alleges instead that that none of the discs is sexually explicit. "But the Defendants are not bound to accept his characterizations or assurances. It was therefore not unreasonable to seize the discs to look for prohibited material. The fact that the Center allowed Ahlers to acquire the discs did not diminish its interest in ensuring that they were appropriate." Institutional authorities are thus allowed to seize electronic media from inmates to see if they contain inappropriate material.
Plaintiff also sues on a procedural due process violation, arguing that they took his stuff without notice. This claim is rejected. While "pretrial detainees are not entitled to notice before a search of their cells,"Ahlers argues that, "at the time of the seizure, the Center staff did not tell him what they were screening for and gave him no receipt. The state’s interest in quick and efficient searches militates against requiring that a detailed explanation or a written receipt be given at the time of seizure." Afterwards, plaintiff got a receipt and was told of the reasons for the screening; that satisfies due process.
Other claims are also rejected. Plaintiff's claim that the facility had no clear procedures for reviewing his materials doesn't fly; in this context, the facility has to act fast. The Constitution does not require written procedures like this. While plaintiff says that they held onto his stuff too long, the 350 CD's and DVD's have to be reviewed in "real-time," and time takes time, as they say.
Finally, the facility reviewed plaintiff's mail, including his normal magazines. The legal standard governing this claim is "reasonableness," similar to the standard at the jailhouse. Some of the everyday magazines had children in bathing suits. For other magazines, it was not clear why they were taken. No matter. The state defendants get qualified immunity because, the Second Circuit says, they acted reasonably at the time in seizing the mail and magazines under the circumstances.