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California Jail Ordered to Restore Attorney-Client Contact Visits

The Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada County, California changed its rules in 2013 to prohibit defense attorneys from having contact visits with their clients, allegedly due to security and cost concerns. Several prisoners filed suit, and a superior court ruled against the county and reinstated the contact visits. The Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District subsequently affirmed the superior court’s judgment.

The jail commander of the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility, citing safety and security issues, had required that defense attorneys meet with their incarcerated clients in visiting rooms with glass partitions. They had to speak to each other through telephone handsets and could only exchange documents through a small metal slot. The attorneys complained that it was difficult to take notes and review documents while holding the phone, and that to communicate without the phone required shouting, which compromised attorney-client confidentiality.

Jail officials did not ban attorney contact visits outright, but required all such visits to be approved by the on duty supervisor. They claimed the jail’s population had increased and staffing had been reduced. According to the appellate court, in “the first three months after [the policy went into effect], special permission was given for nonpartitioned visits on about 12 occasions, or approximately once per week.”

The superior court “noted that prison policies may not unnecessarily abridge a defendant’s meaningful access to his attorney and the court,” the Court of Appeal wrote. “The right to effective assistance of counsel includes the right to confer in absolute privacy,” the appellate court found, adding, “Penal institutions also have an obligation under the 14th Amendment to assure all prisoners meaningful access to the court.”

The Court of Appeal reviewed whether or not the restrictions on attorney contact visits were based on a legitimate government interest; whether there were alternative means of exercising the right; how the accommodation of the asserted right would impact guards, prisoners and the allocation of jail resources; and whether the restriction was an exaggerated response by jail staff.

The appellate court upheld the superior court’s order reinstating attorney contact visits, noting that “nonpartitioned visits had been allowed for some 20 years before the change, ... [and since] ministers and teachers ... meet with inmates in a nonpartitioned room, ... the jail restriction is an exaggerated response to the county’s legitimate security concern.” See: County of Nevada v. Superior Court of Nevada County and Jacob Michael Siegfried, 236 Cal.App.4th 1001, 187 Cal.Rptr.3d 27 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2015). 

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Related legal case

County of Nevada v. Superior Court of Nevada County and Jacob Michael Siegfried