Inmate’s Letters to Attorney Spouse Held Subject to Disclosure
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A prisoner’s letters to his wife, who is also his attorney, were not protected from disclosure as marital communications, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court said U.S. District Court Judge George H. King of the Central District of California properly ordered the letters handed over to prosecutors after a special master redacted those portions protected by the attorney-client and work-product privileges.The letters, sent by Robert Lee Griffin to Pamela Griffin, were among six boxes of documents seized by law enforcement officials executing a search warrant at her residence. Griffin has been charged with racketeering in connection with the activities of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.
Griffin, incarcerated at Pelican Bay state prison on murder charges, was indicted along with 39 other alleged members of the gang in 2002.
The master also found that Griffin had abused the privilege of confidential inmate communication with counsel by including personal matter in the letters.
King ruled that the California marital communication privilege, as incorporated by Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, applies only to the use at trial ñ not the disclosure to prosecutors ñ of protected matter. But Judge William A. Fletcher, writing for the Ninth Circuit panel, said it was unnecessary to decide the scope of the privilege.
Even assuming the privilege is broad enough to bar disclosure of protected matter, as held in SEC v. Lavin, 111 F.3d 921 (D.C. Cir. 1997), it did not apply to Griffin’s letters to his wife, Fletcher said.
He noted that the only inmate letters immune from inspection by prison authorities are their communications with their lawyers. Griffin had marked the letters to his wife “Confidential” and added “Attorney at Law” after his wife’s name.
“It is common ground between the parties that if Griffin had sent a letter to his wife not containing any privileged attorney client or work-product material, prison authorities would have had the right to read the letter,” the appellate jurist wrote. “There is no free-standing marital communications privilege, under either federal or state law, allowing a California prisoner to send confidential letters from prison to his or her spouse. The question in this case is whether communications between Griffin and his wife that are protected by neither the attorney-client nor the work product doctrine, and that would not be protected by the marital communications privilege standing alone, are protected by the marital communications privilege merely because they are placed in an envelope on which Griffin wrote ‘Attorney at Law.’ We think they are not.”
Fletcher pointed out that Sec. 3141(b) of Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations, which governs prisoner mail, makes an inmate subject to discipline for using confidential mail for “personal non-business correspondence.”
“Griffin does not argue that the material he seeks to protect under the marital communications privilege is something other than ‘personal non-business correspondence’ within the meaning of [Sec.] 3141(b). Under these circumstances, we hold that Griffin has no right to protect from disclosure to the government as privileged marital communications those portions of his letters to his wife/attorney that were improperly included in the envelopes on which he wrote ‘Attorney at Law.’”
Judges Susan P. Graber and M. Margaret McKeown concurred in the opinion authored by Fletcher.
The case is United States v. Griffin, 05-50299.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company