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The Fourth Amendment does not protect a prisoner from having his cell searched by police investigating a crime, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. Finding that a “convict has no expectation of privacy in his prison cell,” despite the fact that the search is unrelated to the legitimate needs of institutional security, the 2nd Circuit upheld the dismissal of a civil rights action brought by George Willis in Willis v. Artuz, 00-176. Willis was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter when detectives from the New York Police Department’s cold-case squad questioned him about an unsolved homicide in 1996. The detectives arranged for prison officials at the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y., to search Willis’ cell while he was being interrogated at another location. Officials seized a number of written materials, held them for a week, and then returned them to the prisoner. At a trial in 2000, a jury awarded Willis one dollar in actual damages and $400 in punitive damages on his claim that prison officials retaliated against him for remaining silent during questioning by the detectives. But at the close of evidence, Magistrate Judge George A. Yanthis dismissed Willis’ claim that the cell search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, finding the claim was barred under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517 (1984). In Hudson, a convict challenged a prison “shakedown,” arguing that a search was intended solely to harass him. The 4th Circuit had found in Hudson that the inmate had a “limited privacy right” to his cell that protected him from harassment, and that prison officials may conduct shakedowns only if they believe a prisoner has contraband or the search is conducted pursuant to a random program designed to deter or discover contraband. But the Supreme Court held in Hudson that “society is not prepared to recognize as legitimate any subjective expectation of privacy that a prisoner might have in his prison cell … “ On his appeal, Willis relied on a 2nd Circuit case, United States v. Cohen, 796 F. 2d 20 (2d Cir. 1986), decided after Hudson. KEY DISTINCTION But writing for the 2nd Circuit in the Willis case, Judge Dennis Jacobs said the key distinction between that case and Cohen was that Cohen involved the search of a cell holding a pretrial detainee, while Willis had been convicted and sentenced to prison. Willis had pointed to the 2nd Circuit’s reference to the Hudson opinion in Cohen, in which the court said: “We take seriously the [Supreme] Court statement that no iron curtain separates prisoners from the Constitution, and that the loss of such rights is occasioned only by the LEGITIMATE needs of institutional security.” From this language, Judge Jacobs said, “Willis argues that he retains a limited privacy right against searches conducted solely to serve the interests of prosecutors or the police, and that serve no legitimate security interest of the prison authorities.” However, Jacobs said, “We decline to extend to convicted prisoners the privacy right secured to pretrial detainees in Cohen.” Jacobs said the Hudson court made clear that security is not the “sole relevant institutional interest” of the prison system. Therefore, he said, “Unlike the pretrial detainee in Cohen, a convicted prisoner’s loss of privacy rights can be justified on grounds other than institutional security.” Chief John M. Walker Jr. and Judge Pierre N. Leval joined in the opinion. Robert N. Isseks and Alex Smith of Middletown, N.Y., represented Willis. Assistant Attorneys General Michael J. Keane and Mark Gimpel represented prison officials.

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