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A Times Editorial

Protect lawyers' calls with clients

Is Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee really saying that the only way an attorney can talk confidentially with a client at his jail is through a personal visit? Is he really taking the position that it is okay to record attorney-client phone conversations that prosecutors can easily access? If so, the sheriff is way off base and should review the law.

Gee is an enlightened public servant who has been open to public scrutiny of jail operations in the past. After a quadriplegic was dumped out of his wheelchair at the jail last year by a Hillsborough County jail deputy, the sheriff created an 11-member Independent Review Commission to analyze practices at the Orient Road and Falkenburg Road jails. So why isn't Gee following the sensible and ethical model of many other Florida counties by protecting the confidentiality of attorney-client phone conversations?

The issue arose when defense attorney John Trevena discovered that his telephone conversations with jailed client Richard Daniel Decoursy had been recorded. During routine records disclosure, prosecutors turned over to Trevena a CD with the conversations. Trevena was pretty upset, as any attorney would be, and he is seeking legal redress. But Gee's response has been a rousing "tough luck." The sheriff's position is that because the policy of recording all calls is disclosed, there are no constitutional or ethical issues.

That's not how it works. The jail has a responsibility to protect attorney-client privilege in phone conversations just as it does for mail exchanges. Pinellas and Pasco county jails use an automated system that allows private attorneys to register their phone numbers with the jail. Calls to and from those numbers are not recorded.

This should not be up to Gee's discretion. The Constitution's guarantee of a right to counsel would be meaningless if criminal defendants couldn't confide in their attorneys. State law protects attorney-client privilege as do the ethical rules that govern the legal profession. And the jail should be facilitating those legal protections.

There is also a resource issue. Giving jailed inmates the ability to talk with counsel by phone eliminates wasteful visits to the jail that take up deputies' time. From any angle, Gee's policy doesn't make practical or legal sense. The attorney-client privilege is clear, and the sheriff should recognize it.

Protect lawyers' calls with clients 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 10:19pm]
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