Alameda County sheriff's deputy charged with illegally recording secret conversations

An Alameda County sheriff's sergeant has been charged with four felonies for the alleged illegal and secret recordings of juvenile suspects in an interview room in March, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

Sgt. James Russell was charged with four counts of eavesdropping on or recording confidential communications for his alleged actions at the Eden Township sheriff's substation on March 15, according to the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.

Alameda County sheriff deputy talks about recording attorney-client conversations

Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said the sheriff's office is aware that charges have been filed against Russell, who has been placed on paid administrative leave. KTVU spoke with Russell, but he declined to comment referring all questions to Kelly. When the story first came to light on Aug. 21,  the deputies' union referred calls to Russell's attorney. KTVU called the Mastagni law firm in Sacramento and a representative on Tuesday said someone would return the call.

The allegations against Russell came out in August when the county public defender's office provided evidence of the recording of confidential conversations between juvenile suspects and their attorneys. 

The public defender's office obtained body camera footage of a conversation between Russell and Lt. Timothy Schellenberg in which Russell said he has been recording conversations between attorneys and clients.

When the district attorney's office learned of the recorded conversations, the cases of those juveniles were dismissed. Prosecutors are still reviewing all other cases submitted by the sheriff's office since the start of 2018 to see if more will be dismissed.

"[Russell] will be held accountable for the crimes he committed just like any other member of the community is help accountable if he or she commits a crime," said Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick.

At the time, Kelly told KTVU that department policy clearly covers issues of attorney-client privilege and that his office is conducting a review of "how and why" this occurred. Kelly said that the recording microphone at this particular police substation should have definitely been stopped as soon as the attorney walked in.

"Attorney/client privilege is not a new concept to law enforcement," Kelly said. "We cover that from Day One at the police academy and continue throughout our careers."

Russell is set to be arraigned on Oct. 17 in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland. He is also supposed to surrender to authorities that day. 

Eavesdropping on confidential attorney conversations is a felony under California law punishable by up to three years in jail.

The Deputy Public Defender released the following statement: “These felony charges are completely appropriate, and we're glad the district attorney is taking this seriously," said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods. "In order for us to represent our clients effectively, our clients have to know that they can trust us, and that what they tell us will remain confidential and that law enforcement is not secretly listening to our conversations. Hopefully these charges against Deputy Russell will send a message and deter other police officers from violating attorney-client privilege."