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Miller v. Downey

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

February 8, 2019

Joseph Miller, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Michael Downey, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued December 5, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 2:14-cv-2211 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Rovner, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.


         Between 2012 and 2013, the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, Illinois, prohibited inmates from receiving any newspapers. While awaiting trial on bank robbery charges, Joseph Miller's family bought him a $279 subscription to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin to help him with his case. Deeming the Law Bulletin a newspaper, jail officials precluded Miller from receiving it. Miller responded with a lawsuit challenging the jail's prohibition and confiscation of the publication and seeking to recover the subscription fee. The district court construed the lawsuit as requiring it to answer, not the narrow question of whether Miller had a right to receive a legal publication like the Law Bulletin, but instead the broader question of whether the jail's ban on all newspapers offended the First Amendment. In the end, the district court upheld the newspaper ban and awarded summary judgment to the defendant jail officials. Because the district court erred in reaching and resolving such a broad constitutional question-and the record was not fully developed as it pertains to the jail's restriction on legal publications-we vacate the district court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.



         Pursuant to an agreement between the United States Marshals Service and the Kankakee County Sheriff's Office, Joseph Miller was detained at the Jerome Combs Detention Center or JCDC from February 2012 to August 2014 while awaiting trial and sentencing on federal charges. Because the jail did not provide inmates access to federal case law, Miller, a federal prisoner, asked his family to buy him a subscription to a legal publication covering federal criminal law. He wanted to better understand his case and assist with his defense, so his family ordered a one-year subscription to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and arranged for delivery to him at the facility.

         Miller never received his subscription. He instead learned that the publication was deemed contraband because, according to Assistant Chief of Corrections Chad Kolitwenzew, "[t]he Inmate Handbook states [the jail does] not allow newspapers." Issues of the Law Bulletin, therefore, were intercepted every day for ten months and disposed of by jail staff without any notice to Miller.

         The JCDC's policy on inmate mail was not a model of clarity during the relevant period. The jail did not maintain a written policy listing what items inmates were prohibited from receiving. Rather, and as best we can tell, the jail considered newspapers contraband because the Inmate Handbook did not expressly say inmates could possess them. Jail officials viewed the Law Bulletin as a newspaper because (and apparently only because) it was printed on newsprint.

         Adding to the confusion, however, is that during this same period the jail permitted inmates to receive personal subscriptions to Prison Legal News. This was so even though Prison Legal News, just like the Law Bulletin, is printed on newsprint. So, too, was Prison Legal News not listed as a permitted item in the JCDC Inmate Handbook.


         In 2014, after learning that copies of the Law Bulletin had been delivered to the JCDC and filing multiple grievances with the jail, Miller filed a pro se complaint alleging that the jail's disposal of the publication, especially with no notice to him, violated the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

         Upon screening Miller's complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the district court determined that Miller stated a colorable First Amendment claim against three jail officials and the Kankakee County Sheriff. Following discovery the defendants moved for summary judgment. Although Miller's suit focused narrowly on the JCDC's prohibition of the Law Bulletin-which he repeatedly stressed and explained was a legal publication and not a daily newspaper akin to the Chicago Tribune-the defendants' motion instead asked the district court to treat Miller's claims as broadly challenging the ...

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