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Hudson v. Palmer


Although a ward of the prison system, the respondent, Russel Palmer, claimed that his personal rights were infringed after an "unreasonable" and cruel "shakedown" by prison guard Ted Hudson. He also contended that the guard's intentional search and seizure was conducted solely as harassment and that there existed no reason to suspect Palmer harbored contraband. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, judged that a prison inmate's rights under the Fourth Amendment could not be standardized (equalized) with personal rights outside penal institutions; thus, damage to a prisoner's personal property, if sustained in custody, did not usurp due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment so long as a post-deprivation remedy was provided by the state.

Prison guard Ted. S. Hudson conducted a "shakedown" of Russel Thomas Palmer, an inmate in a state penitentiary. He searched Palmer's personal area and, in the process, discovered a torn pillow case. Although no contraband was uncovered, the disciplinary commission of the prison charged Palmer with damaging state property and ordered that he pay for the damaged property. Believing his constitutional right to due process was violated under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, Palmer took his case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Virginia. His claim alleged the prison officer intentionally destroyed his non-contraband personal effects; intentionally sought to humiliate and harass him; the "shakedown" search was conducted without proper authorization; and the search was unconstitutional because it was not part of a prison-wide protocol.

The U.S. district court found that Palmer had available to him established state tort remedies which enabled him to recover from deprivation of his property. Quoting from Parratt v. Taylor (1981), the district court maintained that "negligent deprivation of a prison inmate's property does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if an adequate post-deprivation state remedy exists." The U.S. district court found there were no grounds for Palmer to claim that Hudson's conduct violated his constitutional rights. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the district court's decision in part, finding that prisoners should have a "limited expectation of privacy" because a "prisoner retains at least (a) minimal degree of Fourth Amendment protection in his cell," and that the guard's "shakedown" was, therefore, unreasonable. The appellate court reasoned that the guard should not have searched Palmer's cell in a manner that did not respect established, random search procedures unless he had strong reason to suspect contraband. Although the court of appeals categorically disapproved of searches which served only to harass inmates, it affirmed part of the district court's decision holding that deprivation of prisoner's property was not conducted with disregard to due process.

In presenting his case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Palmer's attorney claimed that "because searches and seizures to harass are unreasonable, a prisoner has reasonable expectation of privacy not to have his cell, locker, personal effects, person invaded for such a purpose." He contended that a "shakedown" search (such as was administered by Hudson) was an intentional and unreasonable action by a state officer. Palmer believed that the officer's intention was only to demonstrate his authority and that his action was without necessary, justified rationale. He asserted that the guard did not have an appropriate reason to search his cell and that he issued a false charge (concerning the torn pillowcase) in order to harass Palmer. Citing findings of the U.S. court of appeals, Palmer's attorney argued that because Palmer expected a certain level of privacy in his prison cell it was therefore especially violative that his personal effects were damaged during the shakedown. He conceded the necessity of routine "shakedowns" in prisons, but pointed out that unreasonable harassment should be barred under the provisions of the Fourth Amendment. Palmer's attorney argued that his client's rights were violated under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because unauthorized searches and seizures did not fit procedural requirements and intentional deprivation of a prisoner's personal property infringed on an inmate's rights. The "shakedown" was not conducted as a random search; it was an unauthorized violation of the Palmer's privacy. Moreover, Palmer's attorney pointed out that since noncontraband items must not be of interest to prison authorities, the unauthorized, irregular search constituted malicious, destructive action motivated only by the wish to demonstrate force. Furthermore, Palmer's attorney contended that the state's post-deprivation remedy could not adequately compensate for damaged property because items seized by the guard "may have contained things irreplaceable, and incompensable" or "may also have involved sentimental items which are of equally intangible value." Finally, Palmer's attorney argued that Virginia's state relief law was inapplicable (Hudson enjoyed "sovereign immunity" from liability as a state employee). The Court found this argument insignificant holding that "liability for intentional tort (remedy)" for state employees was instituted under Virginia law.

In providing a counterargument, Hudson's attorney contended that imprisonment normally means prisoners must be aware they possess only a limited, legitimate expectation of privacy. He argued that inmates in prison could not expect the same level of privacy rights guaranteed by the Constitution against unreasonable searches as people who are not incarcerated. Hudson's attorney further argued that Palmer's rights under the Fourteenth Amendment with respect to due process of law were not violated by Hudson's search nor confiscation of personal property. Moreover, there existed a mandate of order required in penal institutions that could justify such actions even if performed outside of certain routine.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Hudson. The opinion of the Court was that with regard to the Due Process Clause, Palmer had no sustainable arguments to support the claim that his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated by illegal search and seizure. The justices for the majority pointed out that the expectation of privacy in prison is incompatible with internal security and safety measures. Consequently, a reasonable or legitimate expectation of privacy could not be extended to a prison cell. They also held that prison officers had to be empowered to detect, without any obstacles, all illegal activities that could be done by prisoners in order to ensure safety and prevent possible accidents. Accordingly, the Court found no violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The justices for the majority explained that the concept of due process of law was satisfied since the state's post-deprivation remedy was made available to Palmer when his property was destroyed during the unexpected, "shakedown" search. Consequently, there was no reason to invoke Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Moreover, the justices agreed that the adequacy of the state's post-deprivation remedy was not at issue.)

In addressing Palmer's argument that random searches had to be performed in accordance with pre-established protocol, the justices for the majority found that such procedures could undermine the effectiveness of prison security. They sustained Hudson's claim that unplanned and spontaneous "shakedowns" serve a viable purpose in prison. Chief Justice Burger concluded that "prisoners have no legitimate expectation of privacy," so the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches did not apply in prison cells. Further, the justices emphasized that the state's interest in preserving and maintaining order in incarceration centers provided substantial, valid reasons which superseded a prisoner's expectation of privacy.

Justice Stevens, in representing the dissenting minority opinion, wrote that unrestrained and unreasonable search and seizure should not be considered correct. Since Palmer was deprived of his property after having been searched, his personal privacy rights were violated (albeit, he conceded, minimally.) The dissenting justices did not agree that "the interest of society in the security of its penal institutions precludes prisoners from having any legitimate possessory interest." Justice Stevens went further stating that Palmer had a right to possess all the things of which he had been deprived--items like letters, family photos, and diaries could not be considered contraband. Under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, Palmer had a "legitimate possessory interest" in his seized and destroyed personal materials. Stevens questioned the reasonableness of the prison guard's actions and the destruction of evidently noncontraband items. After the officer had examined Palmer's possessions (which were not found dangerous to prison security), he destroyed Palmer's property without reason. Accordingly, Stevens wrote: "When, as here, the material at issue is not contraband, it simply makes no sense to say that its seizure and destruction serve `legitimate institutional interest.'" The minority justices believed that if rights under the Fourth Amendment could not be extended and respected in prison, then all searches and seizures, no matter how intrusive or destructive, might be considered reasonable.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Hudson v. Palmer - Significance, Impact, Do Prison Inmates Have Rights?