Third Circuit Holds Due Process Implicated When Pennsylvania Prison Rejected Mail Without Notice
Thirty years ago, Steven Vogt was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in a Pennsylvania prison. But in 2016, the state’s key witness against Vogt recanted his testimony in a letter to Vogt that he sent to the prison. Vogt, however, never got that letter. Instead, the prison rejected it because it lacked a return address. I was only by chance that six months later Vogt got the letter from the post office when he asked about some other missing mail.
This prompted Vogt to file a grievance, which was denied by the prison as untimely filed. With this denial, Vogt filed under the state’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), claiming actual innocence based on the letter. That was also denied as filed too late. Vogt then filed a lawsuit under 28 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court, claiming that the prison’s rejection of his mail without notice to him violated his First Amendment right to access the courts, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, because he had a liberty interest in his mail. The district court dismissed the due process claim, saying that the prison’s mail policy to reject mail without a return address was valid for security reasons.
On appeal, Vogt acknowledged that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ policy to reject mail without a return address was valid. But he clarified that his claim was that the lack of a rejection notice is what violated his constitutional rights. Under Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court held that prisons must notify prisoners when their mail is rejected. That case identified a “liberty interest” in a prisoner’s mail, a necessary issue for a due process claim like Vogt’s. Procunier also stood for the premise that when a prison censors, withholds, or rejects a prisoner’s mail without notice, it is a due process violation, the Third Circuit explained, and that Vogt’s failure to specifically identify the his due process claim in certain words did not matter.
“Vogt alleged the prison rejected his mail without notice. And he demanded damages because that rejection violated his due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the Court said. “In short, the failure of Vogt’s pro se complaint to mention the word “liberty” did not forfeit his Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. He alleged his right to procedural due process was violated when the prison rejected his mail without notice. The bottom line is that his allegation was enough.”
To be sure, the Court explained that Vogt’s claims were “distinct” and that the district court erred when it “collapsed” his two claims into one. The district court had concluded that Vogt lacked a liberty interest for due process purposes because the prison’s mail policy did not violate the First Amendment.
The Court, therefore, vacated and remanded the denial of Vogt’s due process claim, and ordered the district court to stay the access-to-courts claim until the PCRA court made a ruling on Vogt’s actual innocence claim, which was reopened during his federal court proceedings. See: Vogt v. Wetzel, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 23540 (3d Cir. Aug. 9, 2021).
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a consultant in federal post-conviction procedure and an authority on federal sex offense issues.