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L.A. County officials move to stop audio recordings in courthouse lockups

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to ask the Sheriff’s Department not to install audio recording devices in courthouse lockups.

In a letter to Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the supervisors said recording in “satellite lockup facilities” — essentially holding cells off to the side of most courtrooms — would raise “significant concerns” because attorneys regularly talk to their clients in them.

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“Confidential communications are at the heart of the attorney-client relationship,” the supervisors wrote. “Without this, effective representation is simply not possible.”

The supervisors’ letter follows recent revelations that a conversation between a public defender and her client in a courthouse conference room was surreptitiously recorded at the request of a deputy district attorney with support from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department.

The sheriff has since apologized to the public defender’s office and said it will not permit recording of attorney-client conversations in courthouse interview rooms without a court order. But the department has been planning to add audio recording capabilities to surveillance cameras in lockups.

“As you can imagine, that is not acceptable to us,” interim Public Defender Nicole Davis Tinkham said in a presentation before the board.

Tinkham said attorneys rely on the lockup facilities next to courtrooms to communicate quickly with clients in the middle of cases — for example, in the case that a plea deal is offered. If audio recording is allowed in those spaces, Tinkham said, clients would have to be moved to secure locations elsewhere in the courthouse, bogging down proceedings. Or they would have to have their cases postponed altogether, resulting in more jail time.

“My clients … are faced with this issue because they are poor,” Tinkham said. “They are now in these jail facilities and subject to recording operations that people who have means and can bail out are not subject to.”

Warren Asmus, the sheriff’s chief of staff, said McDonnell “takes this very seriously and he also understands the constitutional right for attorneys to have the privileged communication with their clients.”

Asmus said in an interview that the sheriff will hold off on adding audio recording to camera systems “until we … determine a plan that’s going to benefit everyone — for safety, for due process [and] for privacy.”

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas urged the sheriff and the public defender to come up with a binding, written agreement.

“There needs to be no equivocation as to how this gets buttoned up. None,” Ridley-Thomas said.

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