Hudson v. Palmer 1984

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Hudson v. Palmer 1984

Petitioner: Ted S. Hudson

Respondent: Russel Thomas Palmer. Jr.

Petitioner's Claim: That the Fourth Amendment does not apply to prison inmates.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: William G. Broaddus, Deputy Attorney General of Virginia

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Deborah C. Wyatt

Justices for the Court: Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: July 3, 1984

Decision: The Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment does not apply to prison inmates.

Significance: After Hudson, prisoners who are treated unfairly during cell searches must sue under state law to recover their damages.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects privacy. It requires searches and seizures by the government to be reasonable. In most cases, law enforcement officers must get a warrant to search a house or other private place for evidence of a crime. To get a warrant, officers must have probable cause, which means good reason to believe the place to be searched has evidence of a crime. Requiring law enforcement officers to get a warrant prevents them from harassing people for no good reason. In Hudson v. Palmer, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the Fourth Amendment protects prisoners in their jail cells.


Russel Thomas Palmer, Jr,. was an inmate at the Bland Correctional Center in Bland, Virginia. Palmer was serving sentences for forgery, grand larceny (theft), and bank robbery convictions. Ted S. Hudson was an officer at the correctional center.

On September 16, 1981, Hudson and a fellow officer searched Palmer's prison locker and cell. They were looking for contraband, which means illegal items such as weapons. During the search they found a ripped prison pillow case in a trash can near Palmer's bed. The prison filed a disciplinary charge against Palmer for destroying state property. Palmer was found guilty. The prison forced him to pay for the pillow case and entered a reprimand on his prison record.

Afterwards, Palmer filed a lawsuit against Hudson. He said Hudson searched his cell just to harass him. Palmer accused Hudson of destroying some of Palmer's personal property during the search. Palmer said the harassing and destructive search violated his constitutional rights. He sought to recover his damages under a federal statute for people whose constitutional rights are violated.

Without holding a trial, the federal court entered judgment in Hudson's favor. The court said Hudson did not violate any of Palmer's constitutional rights. It said if Hudson destroyed personal property, Palmer could file a property damage lawsuit under state law.

The federal court of appeals, however, reversed. It said Palmer had a constitutional right of privacy in his jail cell under the Fourth Amendment. If Hudson violated that privacy with a harassing and destructive search, Palmer could recover damages for violation of his constitutional rights. The trial court would have to hold a trial to determine if that is what happened. Wishing to avoid the trial, Hudson took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.


O n September 9, 1971, prison inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, rioted. They took control of an exercise yard and held forty-nine prison guards hostage. The prisoners rioted because of inhumane conditions at the facility. Prisoners had to work in a metal shop where the temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They got only one shower and one roll of toilet tissue each month. Spanish-speaking prisoners could not get their mail, and Muslim prisoners demanded meat other than pork.

After four days of unsuccessful negotiations to end the crisis, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to take control of the situation. After bombing the yard with tear gas, troopers stormed in, shooting blindly through the gas. In the end, thirty-two inmates and eleven prison officers were dead.

After regaining control of the facility, prison guards punished and tortured the inmates. They forced inmates to strip and crawl over broken glass. They shoved a screwdriver up one man's rectum. They forced another man to lie naked for hours with a football under his chin. Guards told the inmate he would be killed or castrated if he dropped the ball.

In 1974, lawyers for the inmates filed a lawsuit seeking $100 million for injuries suffered during the torture. On February 16, 2000, a judge finally approved a settlement to end the case. Under the settlement, New York State will pay $8 million, to be divided among the inmates who were injured.

Struck Down

With a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hudson. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger began by saying prisoners do not give up all of their constitutional rights. For example, prisoners have First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion. The Eighth Amendment says prisoners cannot receive cruel and unusual punishments. In short, there is no "iron curtain" separating prisoners from all constitutional rights.

Prisoners, however, do give up some constitutional rights. Prisoners are confined because they have broken the law. Prisons need to maintain order and discipline among these criminals. Prison officials especially need to protect themselves, visitors, and other inmates from violence by the prisoners.

The ultimate question, then, was whether the Fourth Amendment protects prisoners from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court said it does not. Because prison officials need to search jail cells for weapons, drugs, and other dangers, prisoners have no right of privacy in their cells. That means Hudson did not violate Palmer's Fourth Amendment rights by conducting a harassing and destructive search. As a prisoner, Palmer had no Fourth Amendment rights in his jail cell.

Chief Justice Warren emphasized that Palmer had other remedies available. If Hudson destroyed his property, Palmer could file a property damage suit under state law. He just could not recover for violation of constitutional rights.

Imprisoning Property Rights

Four justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion. He did not think the Fourth Amendment protects only privacy. He said it also protects property from unreasonable seizures. Surely it is unreasonable for a prison official to seize and destroy personal property such as personal letters, photographs of family members, a hobby kit, a diary, or a Bible. Justice Stevens said that for prisoners, holding onto such personal items marks "the difference between slavery and humanity."

Suggestions for further reading

Boyd, Herb. "Long Time Coming, but Welcome." New York Amsterdam News, January 6, 2000.

Chen, David W. "Judge Approves $8 Million Deal for Victims of Attica Torture." Washington Post, February 16, 2000.

Franklin, Paula A. The Fourth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Haberman, Clyde. "Attica: Exorcising Demons, Redeeming the Deaths." Washington Post, January 9, 2000.

Persico, Deborah A. Mapp v. Ohio: Evidence and Search Warrants. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Shattuck, John H.F. Rights of Privacy. Skokie: National Textbook Co., 1977.

Wetterer, Charles M. The Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

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Hudson v. Palmer 1984

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