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Ruling allowing no-barrier visits between attorneys, inmates upheld

The California Supreme Court has let stand an appellate court ruling that attorneys must be allowed to visit jailed clients with no partitions or barriers separating them

By Denny Walsh
Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO — The California Supreme Court has let stand an appellate court ruling that attorneys must be allowed to visit jailed clients with no partitions or barriers separating them.

That means an opinion of the 3rd District Court of Appeal handed down in April and published in May becomes legal precedent statewide.

The 14-page opinion upholds a ruling by Nevada Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderson in a challenge by jail inmates to that county’s practice of not allowing such “contact visits.”

“Unless and until the superior court’s order is modified based on new evidence, barrier-free meetings between inmates and their lawyers shall be available, unless jail authorities or lawyers determine the meetings would create an unreasonable security risk in a given case,” a three-justice appellate panel declared.

Nevada County sought a review of the 3rd District’s decision by the California Supreme Court, but the high court on Wednesday declined to accept the case.

The commander at the Nevada County jail gave notice in early 2013 that lawyers would generally no longer be able to meet face to face with their incarcerated clients in visiting rooms without glass partitions, citing safety and security concerns.

The commander noted that the jail’s population had recently increased and that jail staffing had been reduced. He said that 50 to 60 new inmates were being housed at the jail pursuant to a contract with the federal government, which pays the county for their housing.

“Jail inmates have a constitutional right to (A) confidentially confer with counsel, and (B) have contact visits with counsel as part of their right to meaningful access to the courts,” the three justices stated. “Substantial evidence supports the superior court’s determination that the county’s restriction is an exaggerated response to the county’s safety concerns.”

The opinion was authored by Associate Justice Louis Mauro, with concurrences of Acting Presiding Justice George Nicholson and Associate Justice Ronald B. Robie.

Briefs in support of the county were submitted to the justices by the California State Sheriffs’ Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Peace Officers’ Association. Briefs in support of the inmates were submitted by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision not to accept this case for review,” said Martin Ryan, California State Sheriffs’ Association president and Amador County sheriff. “We believe that the Court of Appeal’s underlying decision does not represent the law governing review of penological rules and procedures established to ensure the safety of visitors to county jail facilities and should be reversed.” We currently are in the process of filing a request for de-publication of the Court of Appeal’s decision and are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant this request.”

Sgt. Lisa Bowman, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said in an email that lawyers and their clients are separated by Plexiglass barriers with “pass-through” slots large enough for paperwork to be exchanged at both the Sacramento County Main Jail and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.

Lt. Tom Murdoch, spokesman for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, said, “We do not allow contact visits. This includes attorneys and inmates. We provide paper passes between inmates and attorneys as needed.”

Placer County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Dena Erwin said one-on-one contact visits between lawyers and their jailed clients are allowed in Placer County.

Sheriffs’ offices in Yolo, Yuba, Sutter, Solano and San Joaquin counties did not respond to inquiries about their policies regarding contact visits at their jails.

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