Nevada County judge sides with defense attorneys in jail access controversy
A Nevada County judge has ruled that staff at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility can no longer enforce a blanket restriction on face-to-face visits between criminal defendants and their attorneys.
Defense attorneys for six inmates had filed a motion to force the Sheriff’s Office to allow contact visits, and a hearing was held on the issue July 23.
Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson heard evidence regarding the recent move by administrators at the county jail to limit almost all visits to rooms where attorneys and inmates are separated by a glass partition.
The attorneys, represented mainly by Stephen Munkelt, contended the jail is violating a basic Sixth Amendment right, the right to counsel.
But the Sheriff’s Office and its jail staff argued the restriction was allowed due to 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 during the hearing that communication is being allowed and that the glass barrier is simply an inconvenience.
On Thursday, Anderson issued a ruling that both affirmed the court’s jurisdiction over the issue and upheld inmates’ rights to contact visits.
“This is a tremendous benefit to those who are charged with a crime and who need to have a confidential and trusting relationship with their attorney,” Munkelt said.
Kropf said he had not had sufficient time to review the ruling and would need to discuss the potential ramifications with Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal before he could comment.
Anderson ruled that while deference is given to the jail’s operational policies, the court has jurisdiction when the operation of the jail 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.
“There must be assurances of confidential, private and effective communication,” Anderson wrote.
“Contact visits and effective assistance of counsel are intertwined and are constitutional guarantees.”
A detainee has the right to meet with counsel in a barrier-free room unless there is a specific justification for a limitation, he wrote, adding, “Blanket restrictions of significant privileges are rarely addressed. One can surmise from this fact that few institutions seek to severely restrict defendants’ access to counsel.”
In the six cases before him, Anderson wrote, the evidence presented supported the importance of “unfettered” contact.
“To justify deprivation of an important right, the facility must demonstrate a reasonable security problem … No such evidence was offered,” Anderson continued. “There have not been any incidents or significant problems.”
There was no evidence that the restriction was reasonable or necessary, Anderson wrote, ordering that contact visits be made available absent any specific circumstances.
But he stopped short of any edict, refusing to direct the jail on how to accommodate the contact visits; the execution of the order was stayed for 20 days.
“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,” Anderson wrote.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.
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