BLOCK v. RUTHERFORD

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
83-317
Petitioner 
Sherman Block, Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles, et al.
Respondent 
Dennis Rutherford et al.
Advocates
(on behalf of Petitioners)
(on behalf of Respondents)
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Term:
Facts of the Case 

Respondents were inmates being held in Los Angeles County Central Jail (Central Jail) prior to their trials. Central Jail did not allow inmates to have contact visits with spouses, children, or other guests. Central Jail also prohibited inmates from watching the irregularly-scheduled shakedown searches of their own cells. Respondents sued in district court and argued that these practices violated their civil rights under Section 1983 of the United States Code. The district court agreed with respondents’ claim that an inmate’s right to embrace his family is “a matter of great importance” and outweighs the minimal risks the contact visits posed. The district court held that low-risk detainees should be allowed contact visits if they are incarcerated for more than a month. The district court also held that inmates should be allowed to watch searches of their cells from a distance because the shakedowns often resulted in prison officials removing or destroying the inmates’ personal property. The jail officials appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

Question 

Was the Los Angeles County Central Jail’s practice of prohibiting detainees from having contact visits and from being present while their cells were searched reasonably related to a legitimate governmental objective?

Conclusion 
Decision: 6 votes for Block, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Due Process

Yes. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger delivered the opinion for the 6-3 majority. The Court held that Central Jail’s policies worked to further the government’s reasonable and legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of jail officials and visitors. The Court cited the extensive precedent that gave discretion to prison officials in enacting policies and procedures that they deem necessary to preserve internal order and security.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun authored an opinion concurring in the judgment in which he agreed with the approval of Central Jail’s policies but disagreed with the majority’s willingness to grant judicial deference to jail officials rather than to perform a careful analysis of the inmates’ constitutional claims.

Justice Thurgood Marshall authored a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the jail officials could not show that allowing low-risk inmates to see their family would “frustrate the achievement of any substantial state interest.” Furthermore, Justice Marshall cautioned against the Court’s quick deference to the “expertise” of prison administrators and their blanket acceptance of “established state procedure[s],” at the cost of the depriving inmates of their private property. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. and Justice John Paul Stevens joined the dissent.

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BLOCK v. RUTHERFORD. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1983/1983_83_317>.
BLOCK v. RUTHERFORD, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1983/1983_83_317 (last visited August 26, 2015).
"BLOCK v. RUTHERFORD," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1983/1983_83_317.