6-hour hearing addresses jail access issues | TheUnion.com

6-hour hearing addresses jail access issues

Photo for The Union by Liz Kellar

Defense attorneys for six Nevada County criminal defendants squared off against counsel for the county’s jail in court Tuesday over the right to have face-to-face visits with clients.

Nevada County Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson heard evidence for nearly six hours regarding the recent move by administrators at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility to limit almost all visits to rooms where attorneys and inmates are separated by a glass partition.

Five separate motions to force the Sheriff’s Office to allow contact visits were consolidated for the hearing with Stephen Munkelt taking the lead for the defense attorneys.

In the years after the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility was built, attorneys were allowed to meet with clients in interview rooms originally meant for law enforcement interviews. But in March, a new policy to deny contact visits to counsel was implemented, essentially requiring all contact to take place through a glass partition and with use of a phone handset.

The attorneys contend the jail is violating a basic Sixth Amendment right, the right to counsel.

According to Munkelt’s motion, an inmate “has a constitutional right to private contact visits with counsel” that can only be restricted due to legitimate and specific security concerns.

But the Sheriff’s Office and its jail staff have said that there are legitimate security issues with a significant increase in prisoners due to realignment and, at the same time, a decrease in its budget.

Nevada County Assistant County Counsel Marcos Kropf argued that the court has no jurisdiction over how the Sheriff’s Office operates the jail.

“The court has the right to determine a constitutional violation, but we haven’t gotten to that point,” he said, adding there is no evidence any constitutional rights were being violated.

“Communication is being allowed,” he said, telling Anderson the glass barrier is simply an inconvenience.

Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pettitt, who was in charge of the jail at the time the decision was made to restrict visits, testified at length about conditions at the jail and the reasons for the decision.

“It wasn’t a change in policy,” he said. “It was a change in the adherence to the existing policy.”

According to Pettitt, the jail’s daily average population rose from 179 in 2011, to 207 in 2012 and 221 so far this year; former jail commander Lee Osborne testified that when he retired in 2007, the average daily population was 157. According to Osborne, there were 54 staff members in 2007; current jail commander Lt. Paul Schmidt said the staffing is 47 at this time, although he noted about seven of those positions are in training.

Pettitt testified that the Sheriff’s Office did receive about $600,000 in funding to help it deal with realignment and a potential increase in its jail population but said that funding just prevented further cuts in staffing.

Approximately 25 percent of the jail’s population is federal inmates — 50 to 60 on average — who are housed at the jail on a contract for compensation, he said.

Pettitt testified that contact visits are still allowed at the courthouse — although those are only available during the court’s regular business hours, and only one attorney at a time can meet with a client.

Jail staff testified about one incident, in 2005, when a psychotic inmate was placed into an interview room for a contact visit and reportedly attacked his attorney. No other incidents of attacks or threats were recalled by any of those testifying.

Dr. Eugene Roeder, a forensic psychologist, testified regarding the negative effect of a glass barrier on the attorney-client relationship — specifically on communication and comprehension issues, on confidentiality and trust and on intimacy.

That relationship is “extremely important, even more so when the (defendant) is in custody,” Roeder said. “The relationship becomes their lifeline — I would hate to say to reality — but to the rest of the world.”

Auburn-based criminal defense attorney Tom Leupp testified that he has been representing Nevada County clients since the early 1980s.

“Any time I have a choice, even if I have to hold my files in my lap, I will take any other room over one with a phone and glass separating me and my client,” he said. “Clients don’t view the phone as contact. Uniformly, they are not happy to visit with the attorney through glass.”

It’s about building trust and rapport, Leupp said, noting that the rooms currently designated for visits are extremely uncomfortable and impractical.

The new restrictions on contact visits are a drastic change to previous practices and an “exaggerated response” by jail staff, Munkelt argued.

And the blanket policy enforced at the “whim” of jail staff is unconstitutional, said Deputy Public Defender Tamara Zuromskis.

“Were not interfering with the day-to-day minutia of the jail,” she said. “This is about ensuring defendants get a fair trial. Meaningful, effective representation … means face-to-face contact.”

Anderson chose to take the matter under submission and issue a ruling “as soon as reasonably possible.”

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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