McFarlin v. State, 119, September Term, 2008.

Citation409 Md. 391,975 A.2d 862
Decision Date17 July 2009
Docket NumberNo. 119, September Term, 2008.,119, September Term, 2008.
PartiesRobert Lee McFARLIN v. STATE of Maryland.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Robert Taylor, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen. (Douglas F. Gansler, Atty. Gen., Baltimore), on brief, for respondent.


GREENE, Judge.

In this case we must determine whether a letter that Petitioner, Robert Lee McFarlin, wrote to his father from prison was wrongfully admitted into evidence at McFarlin's trial for murder. To reach this determination, we must address whether the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center ("MCAC") seized the letter in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. We shall hold that McFarlin's constitutional rights were not violated and that his letter was properly admitted into evidence.


On February 3, 2004, McFarlin was serving a prison sentence at the Maryland House of Correction Annex ("MHCA"),1 for convictions unrelated to this appeal. On that date, McFarlin stabbed and killed fellow MHCA inmate, Damon Bowie. Because McFarlin killed Bowie, he was transferred from MHCA to MCAC, a "maximum level II" facility in Baltimore. According to the Maryland Institute of Correction's 2007 Handbook,2 a "maximum level II facility," is a facility of "the highest security level for problem males who have shown a pattern of violence or institutional misconduct, or are very high escape risks."

Shortly after Bowie's death, investigators sought and received a "mail cover"3 for McFarlin, which directed mail room clerks at MCAC to photocopy McFarlin's outgoing mail. The mail cover request was marked with an expiration date of March 4, 2004. On April 13, 2004, McFarlin wrote a letter to his father that stated: "I done put myself in a deep hole, Pop. I killed someone in prison. I can't explain it." McFarlin placed his letter in an unsealed envelope pursuant to a MCAC rule and dropped the letter in the area designated for outgoing mail.4 MCAC officials intercepted the letter, photocopied it, and provided a copy to State prosecutors. The State sought to introduce the letter into evidence at McFarlin's trial for murder. McFarlin moved to suppress the letter and a suppression hearing took place on February 3, 2005.

At the suppression hearing, various State employees testified about MCAC's policies and regulations relating to inmate correspondence. The record reflects the following:5

James Peguese ("Warden Peguese"), warden of the Annex and a former correctional officer at MCAC, was the first to testify. He stated that as of March 2000, all new inmates at MCAC received an inmate orientation manual and listened to an audio tape advising them of MCAC's policies regarding incoming and outgoing mail. Warden Peguese also stated that there was a Division of Corrections Directive in place at MCAC, which "advises MCAC would not handle the mail as all of the other institutions do." He described MCAC's regulations regarding outgoing mail as follows:

[Warden Peguese]: All correspondence being sent out of the institution by inmates was to be left unsealed for inspection prior to being sent out of the facility.

[State]: And when you say "for inspection," what does that mean?

[Warden Peguese]: Well, we check for a variety of things. We check for contraband leaving the institution. We also check for content ... keeping in mind that these were the people that had been moved from other populations that were disruptive or created some disturbances or were violent in another population-we wanted to check to see whether or not there was correspondence going back and forth to one of the other institutions that might indicate that something was about to happen, or them giving directions to someone that something was about to happen.

We checked for, as I mentioned, contraband, because in many instances they tried to make-they sent various items to political figures [sic] to the President. We also checked to make sure that no one was trying to make contact with a victim, because we found that happened in several cases. So it was a variety of things there.

With regard to [McFarlin], Warden Peguese stated his specific concerns as follows:

[Warden Peguese]: Well, yes. I wanted to determine whether or not there could be a possible retaliation; determine whether [Bowie's death] was gang-affiliated or whether there was going to be other players involved ...

[State]: And would monitoring [McFarlin's] outgoing mail provide information that would satisfy any of those concerns?

[Warden Peguese]: It definitely could.

In addition, Warden Peguese stated that, "because of the type of inmate that was received at MCAC, [there] was reasonable cause to inspect all mail."

The next person to testify at the suppression hearing was Sergeant Donald Lane ("Sgt. Lane") of the Department of Public Safety, Internal Investigative Unit. He stated that on February 4, 2004, his unit requested a "mail cover" on [McFarlin]. Sgt. Lane described the procedure as follows:

[Sgt. Lane]: A mail cover is what we use as an investigative tool. Once we identify a suspect-or in a crime; [sic] not just homicides, but big assaults and other crimes-we place what we call a mail cover. What we do is we have a form and we fill it out and we present that to the Commissioner of Corrections. He has to approve it or disapprove it. And then the mail cover request, what we do is we-just a brief narrative of what the situation is, what the crime is, and why we want the mail cover.

We forward that to the Commissioner of Corrections. He approves it or disapproves it. When he approves it, we forward it to the institution that the inmate is being housed at. And then what they do is they collect the mail, incoming and outgoing, photocopy it, and then pass it forward on to us, and we review it to see if there is any evidence or any mention of the crimes or [sic] the list, not only the suspect, but other possible people that may be involved as well.

[State]: Okay. And when you say they forward it on to you, "they" being the personnel in the Mail Department?

[Sgt. Lane]: The personnel in the Mail Department, and there is usually an investigator at each institution, especially the larger institutions with maximum security inmates and medium security inmates. They have their own institutional investigators, which are actually correctional officers. And that's who we use, we pretty much deal with.

And then the mailroom personnel are actually the ones that do the mail covers. They're the ones that open the mail, copy it, and they put it into a file, and then either they fax it down to us, or we go and pick it up, or the investigative officer at the institution will contact us.

In this case, the "investigative officer" in MCAC was Lieutenant Kim Wilson ("Lt. Wilson"). Sgt. Lane further stated that "pursuant to ... internal policy," he forwarded the mail cover request to the Commissioner of Corrections and it was subsequently approved. He stated:

[Sgt. Lane]: When I do a mail cover on cases I'm working on, I don't put an end date, I put a start date. And then what I'll do is I'll contact the institution where the inmate is residing when I am finished, or when I have what I needed from the mail cover, and just verbally, you know, tell him to stop it, or ask him to stop the mail cover at that time.

[State]: Okay. So when you personally institute a request for [sic] mail cover, it is your practice to not put an end date on it. You notify the institution when you want it to stop.

[Sgt. Lane]: That's correct.

[State]: Is that standard practice in your office?

[Sgt. Lane]: Yes.

Sgt. Lane also stated that, although he did not request an end date for the mail cover placed on [McFarlin], the Commissioner of Corrections gave an end date of March 4, 2004. Sgt. Lane stated, however, that he was not aware of the end date until he saw the document on April 21, 2004, after Lt. Wilson informed him about [McFarlin's] letter. At that time, Sgt. Lane requested another mail cover, without an end date, "and forwarded that to the Commissioner of Corrections." This second mail cover was approved on April 28, 2004.

Karen Gardner ("Gardner"), a mailroom clerk at MCAC, was the last person to testify. She stated that she has enforced over 50 mail covers and that "[m]ost of the time [a mail cover] does not have an expiration date." With regard to the mail cover on [McFarlin], Gardner stated, "I thought it was indefinite. Because I have some that's [sic] indefinite." To explain the procedure for mail covers, she stated:

[Gardner]: [The envelope is] already open. So I just take the letter out.

[Gardner]: Take it to the copier; copy it, with the envelope; put it back in its original form; seal it, stamp it, and send it to its destination, and give the copy to [Lt. Wilson].

Gardner further stated that, beginning on February 4, she "started copying all incoming and outgoing correspondence that had [McFarlin's] name on it" and that she processed the letter in question on April 13, 2004. Gardner also testified as follows:

[State]: And from the time that you began the mail cover on [McFarlin] back in February, was there ever a time prior to you seeing this letter that anybody advised you to stop the mail cover?

[Gardner]: No sir.

* * *

[State]: So you continue until somebody tells you to stop, is that fair to say?

[Gardner]: Yes.

[State]: Nobody told you to stop on April 13th?

[Gardner]: No, sir.

The Circuit Court denied McFarlin's motion to suppress and admitted the letter into evidence. In an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the Circuit Court's decision, holding that the Fourth Amendment right to privacy did not protect McFarlin's letter from inspection. The intermediate appellate court reasoned that "an...

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