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LA County Supes Tell Sheriff McDonnell To Stop Helping the LAPD Record Potentially Compromising Attorney-Client Conversations

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to send a formal, “five-signature letter” telling Sheriff Jim McDonnell to stop ASAP with his plans to “roll-out” the installation of audio-video recording devices for satellite lock-up facilities inside the county’s various criminal courthouses—devices that could also be accidentally used by the Los Angeles Police Department, the LASD, along with eager prosecutors to record inmates’ private conversations with their attorneys.

In fact, according to acting head Public Defender, Nicole Davis Tinkham, that sort of accidental and quite illegal recording has already occurred.

The letter, initially proposed by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, explains the board’s “significant concerns” that, because attorney/client communications “regularly occur in these areas,” adding audio recording capabilities to the already existing video recording devices in the lock-up areas of the courthouses, could easily compromise defense attorneys’ ability to “confidentially communicate” with their clients.

“We trust that the LASD will agree with the concern created by this practice and act swiftly to halt it,” the letter concludes curtly. “Please inform us of the LASD’s efforts in this regard as soon as possible.”


An alarming discovery

The genesis of the board’s letter approved on Tuesday occurred this past summer when an assistant public defender happened to discover that a recording operation was underway in Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center—a.k.a. LA’s main downtown criminal court.  Specifically an audio recording set up was inserted in the attorney conference room where lawyers meet with their clients, supposedly in complete privacy.

Interim Chief Public Defender Nicole Tinkham briefing board of supervisors as LASD Chief of Staff Warren Asmus, and LASD Court Services Chief Maria Gutierrez, listen.

The defense attorney who discovered the existence of the recording and the equipment, reported the matter to acting head Public Defender Tinkham, who immediately launched an investigation into what members of which agency had authorized this electronic eavesdropping, which was, in turn, producing audio records of the legally sacrosanct conversations between lawyers and those whom they are defending.

Tinkham also notified the board of supervisors  what her PD, a veteran defense attorney named Tiffiny Blacknell, had discovered.

“Informally we have been told LASD regularly conducts these ‘Perkins’ recording operations in any facility they deem to be a custody facility,” Tinkham wrote in a private memo, “including courthouse facilities,” and, even more incredibly, at least one attorney conference room.

Tinkham said she didn’t yet know the “scope” of all this recording, but that she intended to find out.

Perkins recordings, we have recently learned,  are named for the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Illinois v. Perkins.

Mr. Perkins, it seems, freely confessed that he had committed a murder to an undercover police officer who was posing as another inmate in his cell.

Perkins’ attorney argued that the undercover cop had violated his client’s’ Miranda rights, with the ruse and the recording. The court ruled, however, that conversations between suspects and undercover police are not afforded Miranda protection since such conversations are not done in a “police-dominated atmosphere.” Thus suspects do not generally feel the same kind of pressure or coercion, which they might under formal interrogation by officers or prosecutors.

But the problem Tinkham was flagging had nothing to do with undercover cops,  or Miranda rights,  but concerned recordings that were going on in the space specifically set aside for attorney client conferences.

“We firmly believe recording our attorney-client communications is in violation of the law,” Tinkham concluded in her memo, adding that, once she had enough details, she would be back to the board with further updates.

On Sept. 5, as promised, Tinkham sent a second private memo to the Supes (which WLA has obtained, along with the earlier, July 18 memo).


An “unacceptable breach” and more

In the new memo, Tinkham was even more troubled by what she and her team had uncovered, and more adamant that the recording operations in the attorney conference rooms were an “an unacceptable breach of the fundamental protections surrounding the attorney-client privilege.”

Further investigation had revealed that the July 3 recording operation discovered by assistant PD Blacknell, had been set up at the direction of some Los Angeles Police Department investigators, at the behest of a prosecutor from the LA District Attorney’s Office. The placement of the recorders was reportedly okayed and physically accomplished by an LA Sheriff’s Department custody sergeant—all without any further approval of LASD higher-ups.

Another recording device outside courtroom in area where attorneys and clients frequently talk, courtesy of PD Tinkham’s PowerPoint

The idea of the set up was to record three suspects talking to one another. Instead, it also apparently recorded an attorney-client conference.

Unfortunately, that accidental recording was far from the end of it.

Tinkham additionally discovered that there have been 19 such recording operations in the downtown criminal courts building in the last five years, all of them requested by members of the LAPD, and accomplished by the sheriff’s department, and all of them entirely unknown to the PD’s office—until now.

Furthermore, Tinkham found that such “recording operations” weren’t limited to the main Clara Shortridge Foltz criminal court building, but had occurred throughout the county’s criminal court system “for many years,” including in the courtroom lockup facilities “where defense attorneys regularly communicate offers to clients in custody.”

Discovering the degree to which, the sheriff’s department had set up potentially compromising eavesdropping for the LAPD and others, Tinkham said, has caused her to “question the protections in place for other communication tools used by defense lawyers,” and overseen by the sheriff’s department, like, say, phone calls with clients.

Tinkham, who herself is a former prosecutor, pointed to the still ongoing scandal in Orange County, which began after the OC Public Defender’s Office discovered that Global Tel Link Corp—the company which has the payphone contract for the jails in both Orange County and LA County—had recorded more than 1000 calls between OC defense attorneys and their clients.


Global Tel Link’s “glitch” problem

GTL blamed their huge batch of illegal recordings on a “glitch” and/or human error. However the glitch explanation grew much less comforting when it turned out that 58 of those recordings were accessed by the OC Sheriff Department or phone company investigators—or both—87 times.  Yet with all that accessing somehow no one thought to mention the fact that they were downloading and presumably listening to conversations that, legally, were meant to be confidential.

Even more damning, some of those 58 accessed “glitch” recordings were shared with other local police as well.

In Los Angeles County, Tinkham reported, “GTL only stops recording calls…when attorneys register their numbers with GTL.”

She has directed her “appellate team to keep track of the litigation against GTL by the OC PD,” Tinkham wrote grimly.

And, in addition to making sure all of her defense team’s telephone numbers are registered in the GTL database, the head PD said, her office was pressing GTL to make triple sure “there were no recording glitches” in their LA County system.

Good idea.

Tinkham will be replaced later this month by, Ricardo Garcia, the newly chosen  permanent head of the nation’s oldest public defender’s office.

As WLA reported earlier this year, with no public defense experience, Tinkham was a very controversial figure when first selected. But, in the matter of these troubling jail recordings, and other issues,  she has fought for her rank and file admirably, including pressing Sheriff McDonnell, as the LA Times editorial board noted, not to launch any recording initiatives without an okay from someone on LASD’s command staff, and to do no recording at all in the attorney conference rooms without a court order.

The Supervisors, however, felt it was necessary to take the matter still further.

It should be said here, that the board cannot legally order McDonnell to stop adding any kind of sound recording to the existing video monitors in the county’s “satellite lock-up facilities.” Still, at Tuesday’s meeting, before unanimously voting to send their letter to the sheriff asking him very nicely, but very firmly to trash the audio additions, several board members had a discussion on the matter with the sheriff’s two representatives, Chief of Staff Warren Asmus, and  Court Services Chief Maria Gutierrez, and made their feelings extremely clear.

The  issue of “eavesdropping, inadvertent or not, on attorney-client communications” was something the board found “disturbing,” said Sheila Kuehl to Asmus.   The follow-up was even more disturbing, she said, because it indicated  areas in the court and court lock-up that would cease to be private with the addition of audio as well as video recording.

At the meeting, the still fired-up and very articulate Tinkham briefed the board with an instructive show-and-tell presentation featuring photos showing what the attorney rooms looked like, and where the recording devices had been placed, or were designated for placement, including the hallway between the inmate lock-up section, and the door to the court, where attorneys and clients frequently have last minute chats, especially at such times as when a plea deal is being offered, and a decision must be made quickly.  [See earlier photo.]

“I’m pleased to hear that Sheriff McDonnell understands the gravity of the issue,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said shortly before the vote, and after the two representatives from the LA County Sheriff Department spoke, assuring the board that the sheriff was taking the matter seriously.

“More to the point,” MRT added, it was good that McDonnell understood “that the board itself cannot ignore this matter that has come to the public’s attention.”

It’s worth repeating, he said finally, “that confidentiality is one of the pillars of the attorney-client relationship—clients, in this instance, who are simply vulnerable.  It’s not our role to compound their vulnerability by violating their rights.”  So, “if there’s been an abridgment [of clients’ rights], we have an obligation to correct it.”

Yep.

We’ll continued to track this issue so, as always….stay tuned.

8 Comments

  • The Board will probably create an Oversight Committee to review each recording to see what impact it will have on the environment, recidivism rate, homelessness and what Striped Frog it could endanger.

    The LASD will then create a unit composed of a Captain, Lieutenant, 3 Sergeants and 8 Deputies to make sure the Department is in compliance with the Boards directives.

  • Funny stuff. Looks like the biggest cheerleaders for cameras in the jails are just realizing they don’t just record cops. A casual look at you tube reveals all those body and dash cams that were sold as a method of catching the elusive “racist white cop” are in fact capturing all sorts of citizens in embarrassing situations. Remember this whenever Witness la types complain about electronic surveillance.

    The low price and high quality of electronic surveillance make its use just about everywhere inevitable but the politics are funny.

  • The crooked Sheriff Jim McDonnell not only records client/attorney privileged communication between inmates and attorneys in the county jail, but he also does the same via wiretap on deputies suspected of wrongdoing. Deputies’ attorneys currently fighting the sheriff in open cases, advise deputies to not speak about their cases on the phone, and when having a person to person conversation, to stay away from devices with a microphone, as they still might be able to listen in. Pretty scary to say the least.

    McDonnell has declared an open war against his own deputies, well at least 1200 of them in which he wants to win. In order to win and prove a point, to teach them a lesson, he routinely manufactures fake search warrants, to listen in conversations made by his deputies on their private landlines and wireless, and if needed, marches in a platoon of ICIB deputies to the target’s house fishing for evidence.

    Jim McDonnell engages in all sort of misconduct by requesting media outlets to provide anonymous deputies criticizing him of their IP under the false pretense such deputies were engaged in misconduct. Jim McDonnell has dedicated people sorting and searching for comments and commentators highly critical of him, for comments to be deleted and commentators to be banned from commenting, under the false pretense of comments being “malicious” and “libelous.” Jim McDonnell and Teran don’t believe in the constitutional right of deputies to express disagreement against the government, and for that matter, they don’t think the U.S. Constitution applies to deputies. Violating deputies’ peace officer’s bill of rights, as well as their constitutional rights, is a routine for them. That is the reason Diana Teran is in charge of the Constitutional Policing Advisory unit, (CPA), she looks at all the different angles she can twist the US Constitution.

    I mean no offense to any ethical hard-working deputy, but if you thought the Sheriff’s department under Baca/Tanaka regime was a mafia, the McDonnell/Teran regime has blown them out of the water. These people operate just like a criminal cartel, by way of intimidation, retaliation, and cover-up.

    Some may say, show us the evidence. Just like anything else, in time it will come out to light. It is very disappointing to see McDonnell was elected with great fanfare to root out corruption in the sheriff’s department, he did not root it out, he took it to the next level. I could have expected the current level of corruption under the previous regime, it is happening under the “fresh eyes” McDonnell.

    • Looks like jc is attempting to troll the anti- McDonnell commenters with some over the top nonsense. Seeing how there’s not to many of us who regularly comment on this site, jc is more than likely the same old troll who’s been with us for years.

  • McDonnell only changed because he got CAUGHT! What a hypocrite! And we are now to believe that McDonnell isn’t smart enough to know, after years of so-called experience in law enforcement, that recording client-lawyer conversations are privilege communications and illegal? If true then he’s far too incompetent to run for dog catcher! It is now likely that criminal investigations have been compromised and convicted crooks may have to be released. Great job idiot!

  • We had someone wanting to install some kind of “camera” system at the location I worked in the attorney/client visiting area. Someone came out and claimed it was for “inmate expedite” for medical care at IRC. I have no idea if it was legit, but somehow it was quietly squashed.

  • When McDonnell was elected Sheriff, he had no experience in soooo many aspects of the Sheriffs Department. One aspect being our Custody Division. To be politically correct and to receive the favor of the Board, he rushed to get cameras in the jails. His inexperience is now coming to light with the recording of inmates and their attorneys. This man does not have a love for our Dept. and it shows in the way he treats our employees. He is LAPD through and through. His dream was to be the Chief of LAPD and the powers that be didn’t want him. The only reason he ran for Sheriff was for the power.

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