May 13, 2012

Confidentiality and jail forensic evaluations (Part I of II)

Prosecutor secretly records forensic psychology evaluation 

Alameda County Courthouse, Oakland

The other day, I was evaluating an inmate at the county jail, when we both heard a series of faint clicking sounds. He immediately jumped to the conclusion that "they" were eavesdropping on us.

Nonsense, I thought.They were probably just opening the door of an adjacent visiting room.

But in the nearby county of Alameda (Oakland, California), the legal community is abuzz over an incident in which jail deputies actually did eavesdrop on at least one confidential interview between a forensic psychologist and a criminal defendant.

What's most astonishing is that the prosecutor who requested the surveillance, an experienced trial attorney, did not seem to realize she was doing anything wrong. Several days after ordering the tape-recording, Deputy District Attorney Danielle London presented it to the defendant's attorney, apparently planning to use it as leverage in the case.

The expert who was illegally recorded was conducting an evaluation aimed at determining whether "intimate partner syndrome" (synonymous with battered women’s syndrome) was relevant to explaining why defendant Marissa Manning stabbed her husband to death during a fight.

Santa Rita Jail deputies routinely eavesdrop on conversations between inmates and their friends and families, and audiotapes of such conversations can be used as evidence against defendants. But attorney-client conversations are supposed to be off limits. The district attorney's nonchalance about such a basic violation of attorney-client privilege has observers wondering whether this is a one-off situation or part of a larger pattern.

"This incident has placed the Public Defender's Office on red alert," Diane Bellas, the county's chief public defender, told a newspaper reporter. "It is a felony to record the conversation between an inmate and her attorney or others who are presumed to maintain confidentiality on the inmate's behalf.”

"A prosecutor's intrusion into a defense preparation in this way severely undermines the right to counsel and the ability of a defendant to investigate a case" agreed Charles Weisselberg, a professor of law at the nearby Boalt Law School of the University of California in Berkeley. "It's pretty egregious and striking."

London has been suspended pending an internal investigation.

Coming up in Part II: Confidentiality and jail sign-in logs

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