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Brooks v. Missoula County Detention Facility Mail Staff

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

August 14, 2018



          Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Benjamin Brooks, appearing pro se, commenced this action by filing his complaint and a motion to proceed in forma pauperis. The Court granted Brooks' motion under authority of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a).

         Section 1915 requires the Court to conduct a preliminary screening of the allegations set forth in the litigant's pleading. The applicable provisions of section 1915(e)(2) state as follows:

(2) Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that-
(A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or
(B) the action or appeal-
(i) is frivolous or malicious;
(ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.

28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2).

         The Court will review Brooks' pleading to consider whether this action can survive dismissal under the provisions of section 1915(e)(2), or any other provision of law. See Huftile v. Miccio-Fonseca, 410 F.3d 1136, 1138, 1142 (9th Cir. 2005).

         I. Background

         In 2017 Brooks was incarcerated at the Missoula County Detention Facility. On August 11, 2017, Defendant Tera Tackett, an officer at the detention facility, allegedly withheld Brooks' “legal mail” from him. Although he characterizes the mail as “legal mail”, Brooks clarifies that “Tackett violated my rights to receive law work by mail sent from home[.]” (Doc. 2 at 6.) Brooks asserts he needed the legal materials to assist his attorney in defense of criminal charges pending against him. He alleges Tackett's conduct “injured my defense in my suppression case.” (Doc. 2 at 8.) As the apparent justification for withholding the mail, Tackett informed Brooks that inmates were not permitted to receive “mail sent in that's printed from a computer.” (Doc. 2 at 6.) Brooks contends, however, that no such rule actually existed within the facility's policies.

         Brooks next alleges Tackett “violated my right[] […] to use the law library[]” to assist in his defense of the pending criminal charges. (Doc. 2 at 6.) But Brooks does not provide any further factual information relative to his use of the law library and any alleged interference with that use that Tackett may have imposed.

         Brooks also alleges that on November 9, 2017, Defendant Correctional Officer Harris delivered Brooks' “legal mail” that had already been opened. Brooks asserts Harris informed him he opened the “legal mail” in front of another inmate named Michael Brooks and allowed Michael Brooks to read it. Brooks contends Harris's conduct could have placed him in danger by allowing Michael Brooks to release information from that mail to the general population at the detention facility. Brooks alleges the released information regarding his criminal defense strategy could have also been relayed to the prosecutors in his criminal case.

         Brooks contends Tackett and Harris' conduct violated his First Amendment rights to receive legal mail and have that mail opened only in his presence. He also asserts that Tackett's alleged interference with Brooks' use of the law library contravened his right of access to the courts. Next Brooks claims Tackett and Harris's conduct interfered with his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in the criminal proceedings pending against him. Finally, he alleges Tackett and Harris are liable for negligence.

         Brooks' claims under the United States Constitution are cognizable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and they invoke the Court's federal question jurisdiction as provided at 28 U.S.C. § 1331. And pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) the Court possesses supplemental jurisdiction over Brooks' related negligence claims advanced under Montana law.

         II. Discussion

         Because Brooks is proceeding pro se the Court must construe his pleading liberally, and the pleading is held “to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers[.]” Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). See also Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 330 n.9 (1989). In view of the required liberal construction,

a district court should grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless it determines that the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts.

Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127 (9th Cir. 2000) (emphasis added) (quoting Doe v. United States, 58 F.3d 494, 497 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         A. Denial of Mail

         Regardless of whether the mail Tackett handled on August 11, 2017, was actually “legal mail”, or just mail he was to receive from “home” as he states, Brooks' allegations assert Tackett withheld mail from him.[1] And Tackett did so on the basis that a ...

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