Ga. Sheriff Wants Bookstore Suit Over Jail Book Policy Tossed

By Kelcey Caulder | June 3, 2024, 6:55 PM EDT ·

A Georgia sheriff and jail commander asked a Georgia federal judge to toss a lawsuit brought against them by a bookstore that alleges the jail instituted an unconstitutional and arbitrary policy of only allowing books into the county jail from "authorized retailers."

Athens, Georgia-based Avid Bookshop sued Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor and Gwinnett County Jail commander Benjamin Hayes in March, claiming that the policy violated the shop's First Amendment right to communicate with incarcerated people and was an "exaggerated response" to the jail's security objectives.

But in a 15-page brief filed in support of their motion to dismiss the suit, Taylor and Hayes argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity from Avid's claims and that, regardless, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that jail officials can "reasonably restrict" who can send books into jails, as long as those regulations aren't exaggerated responses to unfounded security concerns.

And while Avid may claim this particular policy is exactly that kind of prohibited and exaggerated response, Taylor and Hayes contend that it is not.

Characterizing the policy as "consistent with prison regulations across the country," Taylor and Hayes say authorized retailers like Inc. and Barnes & Noble Booksellers Inc.'s direct fulfillment services can ship books directly while brick-and-mortar stores like Avid cannot. That, they say, is because it "reduces the risk of contraband entering the prison by reducing the potential sources of contact from people handling shipments outside the walls of the jail."

Avid claims in its complaint that the jail's failure to produce any documents detailing incidents of contraband being found inside books mailed to the jail is proof that the policy is an exaggerated response to any supposed safety concerns, but again, Taylor and Hayes assert that does not matter.

"Courts have held that prison officials have the authority to anticipate security problems and establish rational regulations before a threat exists," the men say in their filing.

Regardless, Taylor and Hayes add that the policy is not as "draconian" as Avid makes it seem, particularly when any party can order books from publishers for direct shipment to inmates. Inmates are also given electronic tablets featuring "more than 50,000" electronic books, Taylor and Hayes state, and more electronic books can be added to that list.

The policy is also "less restrictive" than so-called "publisher-only policies," like the one upheld in the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case Bell v. Wolfish , Taylor and Hayes say. The policy in that case made it so that books could only be shipped directly to inmates from publishers, book clubs or bookstores, they note.

"Following Bell, caselaw from the circuits plainly establishes that the jail could have chosen to restrict book shipments to publishers only, in accordance with Bell," Taylor and Hayes say. "Thus, by enlarging the pool of available distributors under its policy to include Amazon and Barnes & Noble's fulfillment services, the court cannot conclude that jail is violating the rights of its inmates, and by extension Avid's rights to communicate with them."

What's more, they assert, Avid's desired outcome — to become an authorized bookseller despite being a brick-and-mortar store — would lead to a situation in which the jail has to make exceptions for other brick-and-mortar stores that want to ship books directly to those who have been incarcerated. That is untenable, the men argue, as jail officials must first inspect a store's internal controls and operations policy to ensure it can guard against impermissible contraband or concealed communications.

"Where does the jail draw the line?" Taylor and Hayes ask in their filing. "Must staff inspect a Miami bookstore and approve it? What about an Oregon bookstore? Avid offers the court no discernible standard for the sort of brick-and-mortar that must, in its eyes, be accommodated, versus the out-of-state basement bookshop that the jail must inspect and review before recognizing that it is nothing more than a front for nefarious activity."

As to Avid's claims for monetary damages against them in their individual capacities, Taylor and Hayes claim they are entitled to qualified immunity as they are "clearly acting within their discretionary authority" when instituting the policy.

"The law is clear that law enforcement officials act within their discretionary authority when operating a jail," Taylor and Hayes said. "Avid does not allege, nor could it demonstrate, otherwise."

Likewise, the men say, Avid's official capacity claims against them are "essentially claims against the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office." And because the official capacity claim against Taylor "necessarily" asserts a claim against the sheriff's office, they argue there is no need for a claim against Hayes.

"Allowing duplicative claims to proceed only has the potential for causing confusion for the parties or the court," they say. "So the official-capacity claim against Colonel Hayes should be dismissed."

Counsel for the parties did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Monday.

Avid Bookshop is represented by Clare R. Norins of the University of Georgia School of Law's First Amendment Clinic and Zack Greenamyre of Mitchell Shapiro Greenamyre & Funt LLP.

Hayes and Taylor are represented by R. David Ware, Russell A. Britt, Pearson K. Cunningham and M. Blake Walker of Hall Booth Smith PC.

The case is Avid Bookshop LLC v. Taylor et al., case number 1:24-cv-01135, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

--Additional reporting by Chart Riggall. Editing by Kristen Becker.

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