Criminal defense attorneys file brief in jail access case |

Criminal defense attorneys file brief in jail access case

"Where's the beef?"

That's the pithy question Nevada County attorney Stephen Munkelt poses in the brief he filed Tuesday on behalf of five local criminal defense attorneys, arguing against a blanket restriction on face-to-face visits with their clients at the county jail.

According to Munkelt, the security concerns used by the Nevada County Sheriff's Office to justify the restrictions are purely hypothetical.

The "real parties submit that a practice of contact visits in the secure areas … which produced no injuries, harm, smuggling or other adverse events in two decades, is safe enough," he wrote.

According to Munkelt, the jail has continued to allow civilians into secure areas to lead classes, addiction recovery meetings and religious services.

"The record would support a conclusion that the denial of attorney visits is a reflection of animosity toward attorneys or their inmate clients rather than valid, legitimate security concerns," he wrote.

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"Respect for the humanity of persons incarcerated by the justice system is a necessity, not a luxury," Munkelt concluded.

The brief is just the latest step in a complex legal case that began when the defense attorneys filed a motion to force the Nevada County Sheriff's Office to allow contact visits, following a move by administrators at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility to limit almost all visits to rooms where attorneys and inmates are separated by a glass partition.

The attorneys have contended the jail is violating a basic Sixth Amendment right — the right to counsel. But the Sheriff's Office and its jail staff say the restriction put in place earlier this year was due to legitimate security issues.

Nevada County Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson issued a ruling Aug. 1 that affirmed the court's jurisdiction over the issue and upheld inmates' rights to contact visits.

He ruled that while deference is given to the jail's operational policies, the court has jurisdiction when the jail's operation impacts a constitutional or statutory right. And in this case, he wrote, the restrictions are impacting imprisoned defendants' constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.

In the cases before him, Anderson wrote, the evidence presented supported the importance of "unfettered" contact. Anderson ordered that contact visits be made available absent any specific circumstances but did not direct the jail on how to accommodate the contact visits.

"The Sheriff's Office and the county jail staff … are in the best position to determine whether to revert to the previous means of providing contact visitation or modify existing facilities and/or procedures," he wrote.

But that ruling was placed on hold after the attorney for Nevada County filed a petition for writ of mandate and the Third District Court of Appeals granted a stay order. That stay order will remain in place until all opposition papers are filed by the defense attorneys and the court issues a final ruling.

"It will delay the opportunity for defendants (who are incarcerated) to have meaningful interviews with their attorneys," Munkelt said at the time. "It is very unfortunate."

Munkelt said he remains optimistic that the court will find Anderson's order was appropriate.

Now that the attorneys have filed their response, the county has until Nov. 14 to file its rebuttal, Munkelt said.

"Amicus," or interested parties who are not part of the case, can petition to file briefs within 14 days of that, he said, adding that he hopes one will be filed by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"Then it's up to the court," Munkelt said. "There's no (time limitation) rules for them."

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email or call 530-477-4229.

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