“Snitches gets stitches.” It’s principle number one of the renowned law of honor among thieves. Back in 2010, Mark Burns said that a can fell from a high shelf and cut his face while working in the New York prion’s commissary.
After immediately reporting the incident, prison officials approached Burns and not only asked him to snitch on his fellow inmates, but to provide false information about another guard. After refusing to become an informant for prison officials, they placed Burns into “involuntary protective custody.”
As a well-behaved inmate, Burns felt that his constitutional rights were violated. He stated they did so “by retaliating against him in violation of the First Amendment, by placing him in ‘segregation’ in violation of his due process rights under the 14th Amendment, and by punishing him with solitary… contravention of the Eighth Amendment.”
Burns later sued, alleging several constitutional claims. Among these was the argument that that his refusal was a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. The federal district court rejected Burns’ claims, siding with the two prison officials.
He‘s not taking no for an answer
Burns appealed the court’s decision to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In its May 2018 decision, the 2nd Circuit ruled in Burns’ favor. They recognized prison officials’ commitment to prison security but still found that Burns did not have to speak. Burns also had a right not to provide false information.
The prison guards did have a small victory, though. Because of the doctrine of qualified immunity, the prison officials were entitled to immunity because the law was not clearly established at the time of the incident.