Lawyers are outraged that the sheriff’s office listened to recordings of confidential phone calls

Recently revealed instances of law enforcement officers listening to recordings of lawyer’s phone calls with imprisoned clients are ‘outrageous’ and open door to possible prosecution, says public defense commission chairman of the state at the Maine Monitor.

State lawmakers funded a study this spring of current policies and practices to ensure that communication between defendants in Maine jails and jails with their attorneys remains private. The creation of the study committee ensures that immediate action by the legislature will be delayed for at least a year.

Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen confirmed that some calls between an attorney and his jailed clients were tapped, but insists it was unintentional and the practice was discontinued in May 2020. But at least one state official wants a permanent solution now.

“I don’t think we have to wait for the Legislature for a fix, I think the sheriff’s departments (and) state correctional facilities just need to shut it down immediately,” said Josh Tardy, a former lawmaker. State Republican. and chairman of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which oversees attorneys appointed to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.

Corey Hebert and Harley Simon, who appeared in an investigation published by The Maine Monitor this month, were represented by court-appointed counsel John Tebbetts. While in custody at the Aroostook County Jail, the two men had multiple phone conversations with their attorney that were recorded and then listened in to by law enforcement without their knowledge or consent.

Jail administrators, law enforcement and drug enforcement officers in Aroostook County listened to 58 recordings and downloaded 17 additional recordings of calls that several inmates made to Tebbetts, according to an investigation by the Maine Monitor. The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office did not tell Tebbetts he listened to those confidential calls at the time.

RELATED STORY: A prison in Maine recorded hundreds of calls from a lawyer. He wants to know why.

Data released by the Sheriff’s Office shows the times selected by users to “play” or “download” recordings of Tebbetts and his clients’ phone calls. That meant “the call was listened to by the user with the name next to it” or “the call was downloaded and saved to disk or computer,” Gillen said.

It may very well be that there were calls that were monitored, tapped or recorded, but it was never done intentionally knowing that the calls were privileged,” Gillen told the Maine Monitor for his article in the July 9th.

Jailed defendants who had the right to speak privately with their attorney “trampled on” by prison administrators and law enforcement have grounds to file a lawsuit or class action lawsuit, Tardy said.

Governor Janet Mills (Democrat), who is the former state attorney general, said she supports the right to private communications between lawyers and their clients. However, it did not commit to taking specific steps to process the recording or listen to attorney-client phone calls in state prisons.

“Governor Mills believes that county jails must protect the confidentiality of privileged communications between an inmate and his or her attorney, a right granted to them by the Constitution. His administration will engage with the attorney general’s office and the legislature in the next session to determine what measures, if any, may be legislatively necessary to ensure this,” a spokeswoman for Mills wrote.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage did not respond to multiple interview requests sent to his staff asking for his views.

The study committee formed this spring by the Legislative Assembly, dubbed the Committee to Ensure Constitutionally Proper Contact with Counsel, will examine how other states handle confidential communication between attorneys and incarcerated clients, and will recommendations on how Maine jails and jails can improve.

A report on the group’s findings is due in the Legislative Assembly by November, although no date has been set for the committee to begin its work.

The ability of defendants to privately consult with their attorneys in all settings is a “matter of urgent importance,” said Rep. Erin Sheehan (D-Biddeford), who was appointed to the committee.

“The most important thing is that the people of Maine are confident that their rights will be protected…whether or not they’re in jail and whether or not these conversations happen in a technologically mediated way — over the phone or a Zoom meeting — or s ‘they happen in court,’ Sheehan said. “…I see this as a whole issue and my concern is that Mainers know their rights are protected.”

A bill that would have made it a crime for investigators or prosecutors to eavesdrop on attorney-client conversations and prevent those who listened from further participating in a case died in commission earlier this year. The bill was drafted by Justin Andrus, executive director of MCILS, and sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner).

Harnett’s Bill death due to resistance the Maine Sheriffs Association, the Maine Department of Corrections and the Maine Association of Attorneys.

Earlier this year, The Maine Monitor revealed that state police detectives and supervisors within the Office of Child and Family Services had listened to recordings of phone calls from imprisoned attorneys and clients, whom the attorney general’s office was actively pursuing, in other counties until August 2021.

Securus Technologies, the phone provider for most Maine County jails, added hundreds of defense attorney phone numbers to its phone systems in May 2020 and again in May 2022 to block new registrations in response to the concerns of state officials.

Attorney General Aaron Frey declined to speak to the Maine Monitor about his most recent story.

Three drug enforcement officers assigned to Aroostook County said they were also aware of “preferred jail calls” in connection with related investigations or prosecutions, the Maine Monitor reported. An internal investigation by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency determined that officers stopped listening and did not break any rules.

Meagan Sway, director of policy for the ACLU of Maine, said she believes the state broke or violated the rules to investigate some alleged crimes in Aroostook County.

“It seems like law enforcement is so invested in pursuing the ‘war on drugs’ that they’re willing to violate people’s civil liberties to do it,” Sway said.

“In the name of the bad guys, all kinds of rules were broken,” she added.

Sway was named to the task force and said she hopes her work this year can find a solution with meaningful next steps and accountability that would also be practical for the Department of Corrections and Prisons to implement. . She acknowledged that the committee’s work was a “political process” and that there was a lack of political will to uphold the constitutional rights of low-income defendants, she said.

“I hope that as a committee we can find practical solutions that also zealously protect the rights of defendants to have access to counsel,” Sway said.

Samantha Hogan covers government accountability for The Maine Monitor. Email her with comments and ideas for more stories at [email protected]

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