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Prosecutors Listen in on Inmate’s Conversations – Is This Legal?

The integrity of the childhood sticks-and-stones phrase is being challenged, as suspected criminals are finding out that words can indeed hurt you.

Some prosecutors are combing through hours of inmate’s personal phone calls in an effort to find self-incriminating evidence.

Jails from all around the nation are using automated recording systems to monitor inmate phone calls.

In many jails, the recorded calls are turned over to the prosecutor’s office where they can sift through the chitchat and look for evidence.

This prosecution strategy has not only led to convictions, but it also may sway juries to deliver harsher penalties.

Many People Convicted Based on Jailhouse Recordings

For example, take the 2006 case of Jerry Perez who was convicted of robbing a restaurant with a BB gun: Jurors heard a jail phone recording of Perez saying he should have “killed the f*%@!^* witnesses” in the case.

The jury then returned with the maximum sentence of 50 years in prison for robbery and theft.

The article discussed another case, where defendants charged with murder incriminated themselves in telephone calls from jail to their relatives.

Their criminal defense lawyers argued that the recordings violated a defendant’s right against self-incrimination; however, the judge didn’t agree and the evidence was used against the accused.

What About Prisoner’s Rights?

Some prosecutors say that the listening-in process takes too long, so they rarely use inmate calls in their prosecution strategy.

In fact, a county sheriff’s information technology manager told the newspaper that in one 24-hour period, 10,000 collect calls were made by 530 inmates.

That’s a lot of eavesdropping hours for prosecutors.

But defense lawyers argue that it’s just not right—no matter how often the spying technology is used in trial.

Although there’s a short message at the beginning of the call that tells the inmate that the call “may” be monitored or recorded, criminal defense attorneys are saying that’s not good enough.

There Should Be Stronger Warnings for Inmates

“It sounds like a customer service or a quality assurance message,” said criminal defense lawyer Tim Buckley to the newspaper. He continued to say that there should be a stronger warning to inmates.

Buckley represented Jesse Lee Westeen, a 21-year-old who was a co-defendant in a capital-murder case. Prosecutors used recorded telephone calls Westeen made to his relatives against him.

In the calls, Westeen admitted that he drove the gunman to the murder scene knowing that the shooter was going to kill people.

Buckley argued that the jail’s process of recording inmate calls is a “silent form of interrogation.” He asked the judge to exclude the recordings on the basis that Westeen had the right not to self-incriminate, according to the newspaper.

The judge ruled against Buckley, saying that the process isn’t an active interrogation and doesn’t require a Miranda rights warning.

Westeen was sentenced as an accomplice to first-degree murder and condemned to 50 years in prison.

What About Attorney-Client Privilege?

Not only are criminal defense lawyers crying foul over self-incriminating evidence being used in court, but also many defense attorneys are enraged that some of their conversations with their clients are being recorded.

An Arkansas county system, and, likely, many other prison recording systems, has a major flaw: This particular inmate recording system can’t distinguish calls between family, friends or defense lawyers, said the newspaper.

There are major criminal rights issues at stake with this technology flaw, with the most disturbing being that prosecutors have the ability to listen in and get a “heads up” of the defense’s trial strategy.

The Associated Press reported last month that in California’s San Diego County, criminal lawyers were furious after they learned that their calls with their incarcerated clients had inappropriately been recorded.

The Associated Press further said there have been similar breaches in Dallas, Florida and Michigan.

With these recent events, many lawyers are advising their clients to leave their criminal cases out of their phone conversations.

Maybe mom was right—sometimes it may be better to just keep your mouth shut.

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