Jail inmate sues to get access to legal materials

Case dismissed by judge

The issue of inmate access to legal materials was at the heart of a lawsuit against the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and a meeting in Washington County Common Pleas Judge Randall Burnworth’s chambers Monday.

The case was dismissed when the former Washington County Jail inmate who filed it did not appear for the hearing.

Ryan Nichols, 41, of Belpre, had alleged in a complaint to the court that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office violates the civil rights of inmates within the jail by not providing access to current case law, revisions to the Ohio Revised Code, a copier or typewriter or access to a notary.

His hand-written complaint was filed with the court in August prior to his acquittal in September on a methamphetamine case.

“I would just like what I’m (due) as an inmate,” wrote Nichols in his original filing from Aug. 22. “Legal materials that are up to date to present the proper defense, typewriter so I can present my legal work in a professional manner, copy paper, copier, envelopes to send these things to the proper branches of the court… I (am) respectfully asking the courts to compel Sheriff Larry R. Mincks … to provide me and the other inmates of the (Washington County Jail) the proper law materials in which to properly (prepare) and understand (our) defenses.”

Though Nichols did not appear for the case management meeting Monday and the case was dismissed the question of access persists.

“It’s a real problem in general,” said Public Defender Ray Smith. “(Inmates) cite me stuff all the time that’s old and has been overruled. Cases change over time and a lot of it changes daily.”

Smith said he considers access to a fully searchable selection of up to date case law and legislation to be a civil rights issue for all inmates, regardless of whether they’re incarcerated in a local jail or a larger institution.

“Even if access to the law isn’t for defense, you still need it,” he said. “And with everything online now, even all 50 state’s statutes, there’s no reason to not have it. Put a firewall up but give them a computer they can look through.”

But nowhere in the Ohio Revised Code does the state outline a requirement to provide the materials listed to inmates.

“Neither Ohio Revised Code nor Ohio Administrative Code Chapter 5120 imposes any mandatory duties regarding law libraries in county jails,” wrote Assistant County Prosecutor Nicole Coil in a motion to dismiss filed Sept. 6. “There is no general right of access to a law library. The fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires that prisoners have a meaningful opportunity to present claims to court.”

Coil further explained that case law outlines a requirement for prison officials to provide inmates with either adequate law libraries or adequate legal assistance from persons trained in law, “in order to assist in the preparation for filing meaningful legal papers.”

Though the United States Supreme Court stated in 1996 that an inmate cannot establish relevant actual injury simply by establishing that his prison’s law library or legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical sense, the principle of providing inmates with assistance or resources to allow them to access to the courts has been extended to jails.

Other local county jails, including the Muskingum County Jail and the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail in Nelsonville seem to apply this guidance by providing some access to the Ohio Revised Code supplemented by either the inmates’ attorneys or public defenders but officials at both said they don’t provide a full or complete library of case law.

“I’m sure it would be optimal for prisoners to have computer access (to case law and the ORC) but there are avenues already in place if someone feels they lost a motion or a case because of an inadequate law library, say through appeal,” said Coil on Monday. “But with the resources as limited as they are I don’t see (computer access or an updated law library) as a place where budgeted funds would go.”

Nichols’ two cases stated in the complaint are no longer in the court system. In the first, a drug case, he was acquitted in September, and the second, a complicity in kidnapping charge, was dismissed.

At a glance

¯ A former inmate filed a lawsuit against the Washington County Sheriff’s Office claiming that inadequate access to legal guidance and materials was a civil rights violation.

¯ The case was dismissed Monday by Washington County Judge Randall Burnworth when the plaintiff Ryan Nichols did not appear.

Source: Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Nicole Coil.

COMMENTS