Raymond K. Procunier et al. v. Apolinar Navarette, Jr.
Decided on Feb. 22, 1978; 434 US 555

Prisoner sues prison officials for interfering with his outgoing mail


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (prison), 1st and 14th Amendments 

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the Court of Appeals correctly reverse the District Court’s judgment with respect to respondent’s claim for relief alleging negligent interference with claimed constitutional rights, granted in the means of the First and Fourteenth Amendments?


A. Background:

Respondent, Apolinar Navarette Jr., a state prisoner at Soledad Prison of California, filed his second amended complaint on January 19, 1974, charging six prison officials with various types of conduct allegedly violating his constitutional rights and those granted by the Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985). 

These allegations included wrongful interference of respondent’s outgoing mail via failure to mail various items of correspondence during the respondent’s 15 month stay.  The correspondence included letters to legal assistance groups, law students, the news media, and inmates at other prisons, as well as personal friends. 

The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioners on all claims on the basis of their asserted qualified immunity from liability.  The Court of Appeals reversed the first three claims, holding that prisoners are entitled to First and Fourteenth Amendment protection for their outgoing mail, and that granting summary judgment for petitioners was improper.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether the Court of Appeals correctly reversed the District Court’s judgment with respect to respondent’s claim for relief alleging negligent interference with a claimed constitutional right.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Michael E. Adams argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Sanford Svetcov, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the brief were Evelle J. Younger, Attorney General; Jack R. Winkler, Chief Assistant Attorney General; Edward P. O'Brien, Assistant Attorney General; and W. Eric Collins, Deputy Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Leon Friedman, Joel M. Gora, and Alvin J. Bronstein filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging affirmance. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of petitioner.

"Whether the state of the law is evaluated by reference to the opinions of this Court, of the Courts of Appeals, or of the local District Court, there was no 'clearly established' First and Fourteenth Amendment right with respect to the correspondence of convicted prisoners in 1971-1972.  As a matter of law, therefore, there was no basis for rejecting the immunity defense on the ground that petitioners knew or should have known that their alleged conduct violated a constitutional right. Because they could not reasonably have been expected to be aware of a constitutional right that had not yet been declared, petitioners did not act with such disregard for the established law that their conduct 'cannot reasonably be characterized as being in good faith.'

Neither should petitioners' immunity defense be overruled under the second branch of the Wood v. Strickland standard, which would authorize liability where the official has acted with 'malicious intention' to deprive the plaintiff of a constitutional right or to cause him 'other injury'.  This part of the rule speaks of 'intentional injury', contemplating that the actor [petitioners] intends the consequences of his conduct. The third claim for relief with which we are concerned here, however, charges negligent conduct, which normally implies that although the actor [petitioners] has subjected the plaintiff [respondent] to unreasonable risk, he did not intend the harm or injury that in fact resulted.  Claims 1 and 2 of the complaint alleged intentional and bad-faith conduct in disregard of respondent’s constitutional rights; but claim 3, as the court below understood it and as the parties have treated it, was limited to negligence. The prison officers were charged with negligent and inadvertent interference with the mail and the supervisory personnel with negligent failure to provide proper training. To the extent that a malicious intent to harm is a ground for denying immunity, that consideration is clearly not implicated by the negligence claim now before us.

We accordingly conclude that the District Court was correct in entering summary judgment for petitioners on the third claim of relief and that the Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed."
Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 7 Con
  • White, B. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.