Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Litigation as mug's game

Zach Johnson was not a happy prisoner. Oh sure, there was the life sentence he was serving, with 50 years to serve thereafter, but never mind about that. No: Zach was unhappy that the State of Mississippi took his mug. His 16-ounce opaque plastic mug, which was confiscated along with the like mugs of every other prisoner in the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, because some inmates (tho not, on the record facts, Johnson) were hiding contraband in their mugs.

So he filed a grievance. And lost. And sued. And lost. And appealed. And ...

Won. 9-0 in the court of appeals.
The SMCI canteen sold Johnson his drinking mug. Johnson bought his drinking mug, using his own money from his inmate account, and at the time of purchase, the drinking mug was an authorized piece of personal property for an inmate to possess. Further, and important to note, the record does not contain any allegation that Johnson was using his drinking mug for any prohibited purpose. * * * Johnson is entitled to just compensation based on the MDOC and SMCI’s deprivation of his possessory right to his drinking mug.
I find the constitutional argument a bit off, inasmuch as it seems to rely on a concurring opinion by Justice O'Connor. I would not bet heavily on MDOC's losing this case on cert to the MSSC.

But let's take a step back. What relief did ole Zach seek?
Johnson requested he be reimbursed for the cost of his confiscated drinking mug or be provided a comparable clear drinking mug. His request was twice denied.
Would it not have been prudent to give the man back his $5 or whatever, rather than litigate this silly case—let alone place an adverse precedent in the books?

Congrats, pro se litigant Zach Johnson; boo hiss, Ronald King, SMCI superintendent.

... The COA btw was not impressed with SMCI's proffered remedy, which was to mail the mug to Johnson's home address: much good that would do to a man with a life + 50 sentence.

... Johnson's constitutional argument may be better than I suspected. Leaving aside O'Connor's solo concurrence in Hudson v. Palmer, the Court implied that where, as here, the State acted as a matter of deliberate policy, a remedy may lie:
Two Terms ago, we reaffirmed our holding in Parratt in Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422 (1982), in the course of holding that postdeprivation remedies do not satisfy due process where a deprivation of property is caused by conduct pursuant to established state procedure, rather than random and unauthorized action.
Might work.


  1. Is this the humble beginnings of a class action suit?


    1. That would be typical. $5 per prisoner's mug, plus $25,000 in attorney feed?

    2. ... Fees, tho I like the typo.

  2. Freud is alive and well.

  3. Nice coverage on the mug case. I felt like the opinion was a little cheeky, but it could be my imagination. I'm pretty sure the inmate is the lesser of the two evils. After having dealt with Walnut Grove for 6 years, thanks Zack, you're my hero, one in our column.

  4. The COA probably wondered, as I did, why the hell it was being asked to decide this issue.

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