Hearing begins for sheriff's deputy charged with illegally recording secret conversations

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 A preliminary hearing began on Monday for an Alameda County sheriff's sergeant who's charged with four felony eavesdropping counts for allegedly making illegal and secret recordings of juvenile suspects in an interview room last year.

Sgt. James Russell, 45, who is on paid suspension from his job and has been free on his own recognizance since the Alameda County District Attorney's Office filed charges against him on Oct. 3, 2018, is charged for his alleged actions at the sheriff's Eden Township substation in San Leandro 
on March 15, 2018.

The allegations against Russell came to light in August 2018 when the Alameda County Public Defender's Office provided evidence of the recording of confidential conversations between juvenile suspects and their lawyers.

Alameda County sheriff deputy talks about recording attorney-client conversations

The incident that led to the alleged eavesdropping occurred when sheriff's deputies responded to a call about a robbery at the Lake Chabot Public Market in Castro Valley, according to court documents in the case.

The four juvenile suspects robbed a woman, fled in a stolen vehicle and were pursued by multiple sheriff's deputies and were arrested when the stolen vehicle they were in crashed, according to a filing by Russell's attorney Judith Odbert.

The juveniles were then taken to the Eden Township substation, where a deputy contacted the Alameda County Public Defender's Office so that the teens could consult with an attorney before being interviewed.

Russell's body camera recorded a conversation he had with Lt. Timothy Schellenberg in which Russell said he had been recording conversations between attorneys and clients, according to court documents.

The district attorney's office said such interviews are privileged communications and recording them is a crime and dismissed the cases against the four teens when it learned about the secret recordings.

 Deputy Public Defender John Plaine testified on Monday that he didn't give consent to Russell or any other sheriff's officials to record his conversations with the four juveniles about whether they should waive their right to have a lawyer present when investigators' questioned them.

 Plaine said, "I had no reason to believe they (his conversations with the teens) would be recorded" and told the juveniles that the conversations were confidential.

 However, under cross-examination by Odbert, Plaine admitted, "We didn't talk about the facts of the case" in his conversations with the teens.

Odbert filed a motion asking that the four felony counts against Russell be reduced to misdemeanors based on the facts of the case and Russell's background and culpability.

 Odbert wrote, "Sgt. Russell had no intent, reason or desire to utilize any spoken words between the attorney (Plaine) and the juveniles. 

There was never any intent or attempt to use the communications in furtherance of their case development."

 She said the recording was never reviewed by Russell or other authorities "to determine if the juveniles made any utterances regarding the facts of the crime."

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

 Odbert said that policy conflicted with a new state law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, that requires that juveniles age 15 or younger be able to consult with legal counsel before they are interrogated.

 But the defense attorney alleged, "This significant change in the law was never addressed in any formal training by the sheriff's office."

 The preliminary hearing for Russell, which will determine if there's enough evidence for him to stand trial, is expected to conclude on Tuesday.