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Lawsuit says sheriff’s office, phone vendor violating inmates’ rights

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 by Mark Richardson

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses several local law enforcement agencies with violating defendants’ constitutional rights by listening in on conversations between inmates at the Travis County jail and their lawyers and using that information to gain a conviction.


The Texas Civil Rights Project filed the suit, naming the Travis County Sheriff’s Department, telephone vendor Securus Technologies, the Travis County Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, after discovering evidence that prosecutors have received details of conversations between defense attorneys and their clients. Brian McGiverin, attorney for the TCRP, said violating the attorney-client privilege is a major breach of constitutional rights.


“A person’s right to speak privately with his or her attorney is a fundamental part of our legal system,” said McGiverin. “It is disgraceful that our local officials would so blithely violate such a basic constitutional right. It has to stop.”


He said county officials appear to be using a two-way video conferencing system installed in the Travis County jail last year to eavesdrop on the conversations. That material is then being passed on to prosecutors who use it to get a conviction, McGiverin said. In some cases, defense attorneys say prosecutors actually turned over tapes or transcripts of conversations to them during the discovery phase of the trial.


“There appear to be constitutional violations at several steps in the process,” said McGiverin . “First, no one from the Sheriff’s Department or Securus Technologies must ever listen to calls between attorneys and their clients – let alone record them. Second, if an attorney/client call is recorded – even accidentally – it must be immediately deleted and counsel should be notified. It must never be released to prosecutors. Third, prosecutors who realize they’re listening to an attorney/client call should immediately delete the recording, notify the attorney and the court, and withdraw from the case.”


“But as far as we can tell, none of that is happening,” said McGiverin.

Attorney George Lobb, who specializes in criminal defense and is co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said defense attorneys are outraged.

“A person in jail is innocent until proven otherwise,” he said “They have the right to an attorney, and they need to be able to tell the attorney their side of the story. If they are afraid of eavesdropping, then they aren’t really free to talk and are effectively being denied representation.”

McGiverin said he thinks prosecutors have been listening in and recording conversations between defense attorneys and inmates for at least a year. The problem stems from a controversial two-way video system installed in May 2013 in the Travis County Jail by Securus Technologies, which allows inmates the ability to visit with both family members and their attorneys over the Internet. Attorney-client conversations have apparently been routinely recorded by Securus and provided to county officials, McGiverin said.


Attorneys get free time on the system to confer with their clients, but still have the option of meeting one-on-one with them in the jail. Sheriff’s Department officials defended the system earlier this year, saying it provided an additional element of security at the jail. (See Austin Monitor, Jan. 22) 


The Austin Monitor contacted the Travis County Sheriff’s Department, the County Attorney’s office and the District Attorney’s office regarding the lawsuit, but received no response Tuesday.

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