Alameda County sheriff's sergeant pleads no contest to misdemeanor eavesdropping charges

A photo of an Alameda County Sheriff's badge.

An Alameda County sheriff's sergeant pleaded no contest this week to four misdemeanor eavesdropping counts for recording conversations between juvenile suspects and their attorneys in 2018. 

The plea agreement for Sgt. James Russell, who originally was charged with four felony counts, calls for him to be placed on 3 years' probation and perform 180 hours of community service. 

Russell, who remains on paid administrative leave, secretly recorded four juvenile robbery suspects at the sheriff's Eden Township substation in San Leandro on March 15, 2018, while Alameda County Deputy Public Defender John Plaine provided legal advice about whether they should provide statements to sheriff's investigators in their case.

The District Attorney's Office alleged that such interviews are privileged communications and recording them is a crime. 

Plaine said at Russell's preliminary hearing last September that he didn't give consent to Russell or any other deputies to record his conversations with the four juveniles. 

But under cross-examination by Russell's attorney Judith Odbert, Plaine admitted that he and the juveniles didn't talk about the facts of the case. 

Odbert said at the hearing that Russell wasn't present when the recording began and had no intent of using the conversations between Plaine and the juveniles as a way of building a case against them. 

The defense attorney said Russell recorded the conversations because the sheriff's office, to ensure that juveniles are safe, had a policy of continuously visually and audibly monitoring juveniles while they were in interview rooms. 

Odbert said the policy conflicted with a new state law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, that requires juveniles age 15 or younger be able to consult with legal counsel before they are interrogated but the sheriff's office never trained its personnel about complying with it.

At the end of the preliminary hearing, Odbert asked Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson to reduce the four counts against Russell from felonies to misdemeanors but Jacobson refused to do so and ordered Russell to stand trial on four felony counts. 

Odbert couldn't be reached for comment on Friday.