Should the Medium Affect the Message? Legal and Ethical Implications of Prosecutors Reading Inmate-Attorney Email
attorney-client privilege, evidence, email, electronic communication, Sixth Amendment, right of access to counsel
The attorney-client privilege protects confidential legal communications between a party and her attorney from being used against her, thus encouraging full and frank attorney-client communication. It is a venerable evidentiary principle of American jurisprudence. Unsurprisingly, prosecutors may not eavesdrop on inmate-attorney visits or phone calls or read inmate-attorney postal mail. Courts are currently divided, however, as to whether or not they can forbid prosecutors from reading inmate- attorney email.
This Note explores the cases that address whether federal prosecutors may read inmates’ legal email. As courts have unanimously held, because inmates know that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) monitors all their email, their legal email is unprivileged. In addition, all courts have rejected the argument that prosecutors reading inmates’ legal email impermissibly restricts inmates’ Sixth Amendment right of access to counsel. Accordingly, despite questioning the practice’s propriety, four courts have ruled that there is no legal basis to prevent prosecutors from reading inmate-attorney email. Two courts, however, pursuant to no clear authority, prevented the prosecutors from doing so.
This Note argues that prosecutors should abstain from reading inmate- attorney email as a matter of self-regulation because this behavior unjustifiably chills inmate-attorney communication. In addition, this Note asserts that BOP’s email monitoring policy unconstitutionally restricts inmates’ Sixth Amendment right of access to counsel, a challenge prisoners’ rights advocates have yet to bring. In cases where BOP’s email monitoring policy is not at issue, or where a court seeks to avoid a constitutional decision, this Note concludes that courts should prevent prosecutors from reading inmates’ legal email by exercising their delegated authority to enforce Rules of Professional Conduct. Specifically, courts should invoke Rule 8.4(d), which prohibits attorneys from engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Brandon P. Ruben,
Should the Medium Affect the Message? Legal and Ethical Implications of Prosecutors Reading Inmate-Attorney Email,
83 Fordham L. Rev. 2131
Available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol83/iss4/15