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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules No Privacy Right Exists for Jail Phone Calls

On September 11, 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that jail prisoners had no right to privacy with respect to the recording of the non-legal phone calls they made while in jail, and the sheriff must provide recordings of the phone calls when the grand jury requests them via subpoena.

The Suffolk County grand jury subpoenaed the recordings of the telephone conversations of a specific prisoner at the jail. The sheriff filed a motion to quash, citing a ruling from a different Superior Court in a different case. The judge denied the motion to quash. The sheriff asked the judge to hold him in contempt so that he could seek an appellate ruling that prisoners had no privacy rights in the recordings. He was held in contempt and appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court held that prisoners had no expectation of privacy in their jail telephone conversations under the state or federal constitutions. It noted that jail inmates and the persons they telephoned received recorded voice warnings in multiple languages that all calls not made to an attorney would be monitored and recorded. The inmates also received written notice in the jail handbook and by signs posted at the phones. The court also held that there was no privacy right in the recordings that would prevent the sheriff from handing them over to a grand jury in response to a subpoena. For these rulings, it did not matter whether the prisoner was convicted or a pretrial detainee. The finding of contempt and denial of the motion to quash were affirmed and the case returned to the Superior Court for further proceedings. There were two dissenting opinions in this 4-3 split decision.

See: In the Matter of a Grand Jury Subpoena, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, No. SJC-10402

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Related legal case

In the Matter of a Grand Jury Subpoena