Texas County Settles Jailhouse-Recording Suit

     AUSTIN (CN) – Travis County, Texas, officials settled a federal class action that claimed they illegally record phone calls between inmates and their lawyers at the county jail.
     Sheriff Greg Hamilton said Monday that officials accept that there are “policy refinements that make the process better.”
     No taxpayer money was paid to the plaintiffs in the settlement, he added.
     The Austin Lawyers Guild, four of its criminal defense attorney members, the Prison Justice League (an inmate advocacy group), and the Texas Civil Rights Project, sued the several county officials and county jail phone contractor Securus Technologies in April 2014.
     In the lawsuit the plaintiffs disputed the sheriff department’s claim that attorney-client phone calls were not recorded and that video visits were “secure and completely private” for attorneys.
     “[I]n reality, Securus Technology and the sheriff’s department do record confidential attorney-client communications,” the complaint stated.
     It continued: “They also disclose those recorded conversations to prosecutors in the Travis County and District Attorneys’ Offices. In both offices, prosecutors have procured recordings of confidential attorney-client communication from the Sheriff’s Department and/or Securus Technologies and listened to them. Some prosecutors have disclosed copies of those records to defense attorneys among other discovery materials; some have used that knowledge to their tactical advantage without admitting they obtained or listened to the recordings.”
     The plaintiffs sought damages for violations of the Federal Wiretap Act, the Texas Wiretap Act and the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution.
     They also sought the destruction of the jailhouse recordings and an injunction against any additional recordings.
     Hamilton said the lawsuit was dismissed on Friday after the settlement agreement was entered.
     He said the plaintiffs had earlier amended their complaint “to acknowledge that there was no evidence of knowing or intentional wrongdoing or misconduct by these officials of their offices, including the Sheriff’s Office.”
     He said the plaintiff organizations agreed to inform their members how the phone system works and how to use it correctly.
     “Additionally, the instructions for how the system works will be made clearer for the attorneys using the system,” Hamilton said in a statement. “We will be updating our website and making the instructions clearer for all involved.”
     The Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Abby Frank said the right to privileged attorney-client conversations is “essential to the proper functioning of our justice system” and that the settlement “will ensure that right is protected.”
     “Attorneys will not be entitled to register their phone numbers on a ‘do not record’ list that will maintain the privacy of their communications with their clients in jail,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “Travis County is also implementing policies that require prosecutors to stop listening immediately to any recorded attorney-client conversation they discover and to disclose its existence to the attorney.”
     Sheriff’s officials will also post signs by the jail’s phones in four languages that warn a call may be recorded if the inmate does not call a protected attorney number, the statement said.

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