The lawsuit claims that the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office’s recently-installed software lets corrections officials read messages that should be protected by attorney-client privilege.
Criminal defense lawyers in California’s Peninsula have filed a lawsuit accusing San Mateo County jail officials of breaching attorney-client privilege by installing e-mail monitoring software that exposed privileged communications to corrections staff.
According to The Mercury News, the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California on behalf of attorneys Curtis Briggs, Robert Canny, and Matthew Murrillo.
Collectively, the attorneys claim that the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office installed its e-mail system in a way that allows law enforcement to intercept and view messages between defense lawyers and their in-custody clients.
“So if an inmate sends me an email and I reply, correctional staff can read it, and I don’t like that,” Canny told KRON-4.
“They’re using an electronic messaging system that allows all of the deputies, all correctional staff, all law enforcement to surveil all email messages, all electronic messages,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office, says the lawsuit, gave no notice or warning that that its technology could enable it to sift through privileged communications.
“This new system effectively scans everything that comes in and out electronically, including email and even hard mail,” said attorney Ara Jabagchouria of the Law Offices of Ara Jabagchouria, P.C., one of three legal firms involved in the lawsuit. “Especially during COVID, attorneys wouldn’t be able to come in as much and relied on email as communication. What’s happening is the deputies have been reviewing emails and they failed to screen out what’s attorney-client privilege.”
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department said that the county has yet to be served a copy of the lawsuit, but believes the allegations are either false or exaggerated.
“The email system that the plaintiffs appears to be attacking is not for legal mail,” Lt. Eammon Allen said in a statement. “That email system clearly and specifically tells all persons in custody who use it that it is not for communicating with attorneys. Further, all others who use it are clearly informed that emails can be monitored and are not private.”
However, the lawsuit alleges that the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office has violated attorney-client privilege in other ways: correction officials have, for instance, abrogated the long-standing practice of checking legal mail for contraband in front of inmates.
While Allen has disputed this claim, saying that local law enforcement has “the utmost respect for the legal system and its safeguards, including attorney/client privilege,” Jabagchourian says that area attorneys and inmates have had a very different experience.
“Thank God we have courts so we don’t have to take what the county gives us as the final word,” Jabagchourian said.
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