Central Valley

Stanislaus Sheriff's policy irks defense lawyers

Instead of talking in person, inmates and their lawyers, separated by thick glass, will have to make do with telephones and mail slots.

Some area attorneys say the new policy by the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department is keeping them from effectively reviewing evidence and talking with their clients.

"I find this appalling," said Jeanette Sereno, president of the Stanislaus County Bar Association. "This is a pretty serious decision by the sheriff's office. In my mind, it borders on unconstitutional."

Lt. Gregg Clifton of the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center said the move, made this summer, comes with a rise in inmates assaulting each other and staff and contraband smuggled into the jail, though he notes attorneys aren't to blame.

He said gang strife on the street has made its way into the jail, with assaults rising 21 percent this year compared with 2008.

"It's a dangerous environment where we can't always predict what's going to happen," Clifton said, noting the safety center houses medium- and maximum-security offenders. "It's hard to keep these people safe when an incident happens."

The downtown jail and honor farm are not affected, because they weren't built with visitor booths. The interview rooms in the downtown jail are equipped with panic buttons, and inmates can be chained to the floor during visits, Clifton said.

Defense attorney Frank Carson doesn't buy the argument that the new policy is meant to keep him safe. Carson said he hasn't heard of a lawyer being assaulted by an inmate in the 20 years he's practiced law.

"We're typically the last guy that the inmates want to hurt," Carson said. "We're their best friend in the world."

Carson wonders why people contracted by the county to run résumé workshops or anger management training, among other programs, are allowed to meet with inmates face to face in interview rooms while attorneys are confined to the booths.

He said some of his clients are afraid to speak with him for fear of being recorded.

"They can run the jail any way they want, but I think it's really inappropriate to single out a single profession," Carson said.

Sheriff Adam Christianson said the change was not an effort to single out attorneys. He said the budget shortfall means the department can't afford the extra staff time to get visitors and attorneys in and out of interview rooms safely.

"It takes my staff away from their primary responsibilities," Christianson said.

But a law expert and a civil rights advocate both said they thought the Sheriff Department's policy was "unwarranted."

"It seems like a shortsighted policy that invites litigation," said Professor Michael Vitiello of the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. "That they allow face to face for some purposes undercuts the safety rationale."

Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, agreed.

"If (the Sheriff's Department) is going to implement security measures that interfere with the lawyer's ability to speak with a client and pass documents back and forth, they have to show those restrictions are reasonably necessary," Risher said. "If they're not necessary for other people, why are they necessary for lawyers?"

He added: "You would think the defense lawyers are in the best position to judge if they want to be sitting in a room with their client."

Clifton said those programs allowed to use interview rooms are for groups of inmates who qualify for rehabilitation programs such as parenting classes.

He said there are exceptions to the rule for attorneys who need to listen to or watch audio or video evidence or lawyers representing clients in death penalty cases. He said the conversations over the so-called power phones, which connect attorneys to their client through the glass partition, are not recorded.

Clifton said jails in San Joaquin, Sacramento and Los Angeles counties require attorneys to speak with inmates through the glass.

"We're really not unique," Clifton said.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.