LA authorities recorded privileged attorney-client conversations

LOS ANGELES -- After Los Angeles County's public defender expressed concerns about possibly illegal recordings of privileged attorney-client meetings at a downtown courthouse, a spokeswoman for the district attorney has acknowledged that such recordings had "inadvertently" occurred in one case.

The spokeswoman, Shiara Davila-Morales, said Friday that recordings had been made of conversations between a defense attorney and a client in a case involving three individuals accused of kidnapping and extortion.

Davila-Morales said the district attorney's office has not listened to the recordings and has no intention of using them in the prosecution of the case.

The statement from the district attorney's office in response to inquiries from The Los Angeles Times came after Interim Public Defender Nicole Davis Tinkham sent a confidential memo to the county Board of Supervisors Wednesday.

The memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, said the public defender's office had begun an investigation into a recording operation by sheriff's and police officials of attorney-client conversations at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.

"Informally we have been told (the L.A. County Sheriff's Department) regularly conducts these 'Perkins' recording operations in any facility they deem to be a custody facility, including courthouse facilities, and that a Perkins operation did in fact occur in the attorney conference room," Tinkham wrote. "We are not clear how many attorney-client communications were recorded."

The term "Perkins operation" is generally used to describe a sting operation in which an undercover law enforcement official or informant records an inmate in custody.

The memo does not say how or when the public defender's office became aware of the recording operation or for how long it took place.

Two people familiar with the matter said an incident in the courthouse's 14th-floor attorney conference room in recent weeks raised concerns.

The room is dedicated for use by attorneys, who must identify themselves to sheriff's deputies before their clients are brought in. The clients are placed inside narrow, confined spaces and then allowed to communicate with attorneys through a glass wall via telephone.

There is no notice indicating that communications may be recorded.

The case in which Davila-Morales said the recording occurred involved a three people charged with 17 felonies, including kidnapping, assault with a firearm, grand theft and mayhem.

All three defendants are in custody, the third having been arrested this month. A video of the arrest, which shows several police officers aiming their guns at an unarmed woman, elicited outrage on social media.

Davila-Morales declined to comment on where the recorded attorney-client conversation occurred, how it was inadvertently recorded or whether it was an isolated incident.

Communications between attorneys and their clients are generally confidential and protected by law. The protection may not apply when those communications are used to further a crime, civil violation or fraud.

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