The top jail commander at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center told a judge Thursday that he wrote a policy limiting contact with inmates and their lawyers because he feared heightened inmate violence and a possible hostage crisis at the jail.
But after two hours of testimony, Lt. Gregg Clifton said he knew of no attorney being assaulted or held hostage by an inmate among the thousands who have met to discuss their cases face-to-face at the Public Safety Center.
Since the June 2009 policy went into effect, many of the roughly 530 inmates at the Public Safety Center meet their defense attorneys from behind thick security glass, using two-way phones and a mail slot instead of speaking one-on-one in a private room.
"(Attorneys) can be taken over by the inmates," Clifton testified. "The 86 inmates basically let us run (each) unit. They can uprise at any time."
Clifton was subpoenaed Thursday to testify in a motion to dismiss all charges against a 20-year-old man accused of a double murder and a host of other felonies.
As an inmate at the Public Safety Center, Eric Arguello's attorney must show a special reason to meet him one-on-one, such as if his client is facing the death penalty or if they must meet to view audio, video or large amounts of evidence.
But the rest of Stanislaus County's 750 inmates — from alleged murderers to those charged with minor crimes such as being drunk in public — are required to give no justification for a private meeting without a barrier of soundproof glass.
"The actions of the prosecution ... have prevented the defendant from preparing and presenting a meaningful defense," Arguello's attorney Martin Baker wrote in court papers.
Other visitors — including general educational development counselors, chaplains, law enforcement officers and psychiatrists — can use the private interview rooms, Clifton said.
Arguello's case isn't the only one on the line. It's among a string of such motions attempting to attack the Sheriff's Department policy.
Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira argued the increase in inmate assaults, which spiked 21 percent from 2008 to 2009, merited the preemptive steps.
"They're putting forth (this policy) because there's a significant risk involved and you're trying to prevent things," she said.
Longtime criminal defense attorney Bob Chase testified Thursday, telling Judge Nancy Ashley about his complaints against the new policy:
A lack of privacy in some visiting rooms.
Chase recounted a scenario where he could hear an inmate and his girlfriend holding a sexual conversation. "I sort of felt like a voyeur," Chase said. "This was very awkward and that was the last straw for me."
Broken or malfunctioning phones.
"On one occasion, I was trying to talk to my client and the phone didn't work, so we were trying to shout through the glass," Chase said.
Another time, the phones began beeping. "My client expressed a lot of concern as to what kind of tweets those were ... if that could be a recording device," he said.
In August 2007, a judge struck down another Sheriff's Department policy that banned lawyers from meeting with incarcerated clients during mealtimes.
The ruling granted an 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. visiting period for lawyers in felony cases.
"Counsel must be allowed access and time to consult with their in-custody client," Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver wrote.
Attorneys are expected to make their arguments in the Arguello case when the hearing continues Thursday.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.