Youth Authority Eavesdropping in Chapel Barred

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court, invoking the right of incarcerated juvenile offenders to the free exercise of religion, ruled Thursday that state officials must remove electronic listening devices installed to monitor security in a California Youth Authority chapel.

The court, in a 5-2 decision, said state law requires that offenders at an authority facility in Stockton be "free from the presence" of an eavesdropping system that could pick up counseling sessions with chaplains as well as worship services at the chapel.

"The practice of religion can make an important contribution to the ultimate goals of rehabilitation and treatment," Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird wrote for the majority. The monitoring system, she said, "restricts the free exercise of religion to an extent greater than necessary to ensure the reasonable security concerns of (institutional) officials."

Bird said authorities should consider "less drastic" alternatives, such as improved electronic "beepers" for chaplains and guards that can be easily triggered, or a new alarm system that would warn of unauthorized entry into the chapel.

But in an outspoken dissent, Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, joined by Justice Stanley Mosk, assailed the majority for a ruling that "approaches an act of judicial irresponsibility." Lucas noted that a series of violent incidents, ranging from gang confrontations to sexual attacks on younger offenders, had occurred in or near a chapel at another facility run by the authority.

The court, he said, is "unnecessarily placing the lives of CYA wards and personnel at risk merely because of a remotely possible 'chilling effect' upon the conduct of religious services or consultations. . . ."

The listening device, employing a microphone similar to those used in other buildings throughout the authority system, was installed at the chapel at the Karl Holton School in Stockton in 1982 but was not used pending resolution of the case. (Attorneys in the case said they believe another such device had been installed in at least one other chapel, but authority officials were unavailable to comment on such a possibility).

The device was placed in the ceiling of the foyer at a Protestant chapel, where it could pick up sounds from surrounding areas, including the worship area of the chapel and the chaplain's office. Officials said it could be turned off at the request of a chaplain.

Two offenders, who have since been paroled, brought suit challenging the placement of the microphone as an invasion of privacy and threat to religious freedom. But a San Joaquin Superior Court rejected the claim, finding that the sound system was a reasonable means of protecting security and did not violate the rights of offenders. A state Court of Appeal upheld the ruling.

Bird's far-ranging, 56-page opinion was joined by Justices Allen E. Broussard and Cruz Reynoso and Sacramento Municipal Judge Alice A. Lytle, sitting temporarily by assignment. Bird noted that the presence of the monitor would have a "chilling effect," not only on private consultations but also on public services at the chapel.

Bird also rejected officials' contentions that privacy could still be ensured when an offender conferred with the chaplain behind closed office doors. Evidence in the case indicated there was a "serious question" whether conversations could still be overheard in such circumstances, she said.

The majority observed further that four chaplains had testified that the installation of the monitors in chapels would discourage offenders from seeking their assistance and speaking openly.

Bird acknowledged that the officials' concern for security was reasonable, but chided the agency for not further exploring less intrusive alternatives. Without more evidence that the authority had considered such alternatives and found them ineffective, "this court cannot hold that the sound monitoring system is truly 'necessary' for institutional security," she wrote.

In a separate opinion, Justice Joseph R. Grodin said he agreed that the system as devised presented a threat to the rights of the offenders. But he said that the agency should have been given a chance to establish regulations to make sure the microphone was not used to monitor ordinary counseling sessions and religious services.

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