Case highlights lack of safeguards during jail interviews; Judge: Inmates can't be expected to know the law

Case highlights lack of safeguards during jail interviews; Judge: Inmates can't be expected to know the law - Grant Scott-Goforth/The Times-Standard

Case highlights lack of safeguards during jail interviews; Judge: Inmates can't be expected to know the law

Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson said a Eureka Police Department detective stepped over the line when he interviewed a burglary defendant without an attorney present in February.

Public defender Gregory Elvine-Kreis, who heads the county's Conflict Counsel Office, said the police department lacked safeguards for defendants' attorney-client privilege when EPD Detective Ron Prose interviewed his client about an alleged burglary. Elvine-Kreis sought a dismissal of charges against his client, which Watson denied Friday.

Watson said it's not unusual for an attorney to allow a client to speak with police when it doesn't regard the case at hand. This keeps the attorney from hearing information relevant to other clients that he or she may have.

”The attorney is, in essence, shielded from that information,” Watson said.

That permission is usually based on the expectation that only collateral information will be discussed, Watson said. In this instance, the detective should have asked the public defender if he could talk to his client about an alleged burglary. The attorney arranged the interview, but apparently was unaware that the conversation would lead to the matter currently before the court.

That interview led to a confession, in addition to other information the detective was seeking.

Former Deputy District Attorney Allan Dollison, who was informed of Prose's interview as early as March, could have used a confession to counter any testimony the defendant gave in court.

”The problem is the defendant is not expected to be, nor schooled in those finer points of law,” Watson said.

Prose testified that he had frequently spoken to inmates to gather information, and his supervisors did not warn him against talking to the defendant about the burglary case.

He said the content of inmate interviews are sensitive because it can put defendants at risk if it becomes known they collaborated with police.

Eureka Police Chief Murl Harpham was subpoenaed but did not appear at the hearing to discuss the protocols of interviewing inmates.

”Harpham is the boss,” Elvine-Kreis said. “He is not aware of this case, he knows nothing about this interview, he is being called to lay the foundation that the Eureka Police Department doesn't have any safety mechanisms in place for violations of citizen's constitutional rights.”

Reached on the phone Thursday, Harpham said he told Elvine-Kreis in a conversation prior to the hearing to contact him if he wanted him to appear, although he was surprised to receive a subpoena.

”There's nothing I can offer,” he said, saying he wasn't familiar with the “convoluted” case or the interview.

He said he called the county's Conflict Counsel Office and asked why he was subpoenaed and was told, “just be on call that day.”

”All he has to do is phone,” Harpham said. “I'm not gonna go sit up there all day for something I don't know about.”

Harpham said while he doesn't have a policy dictating how detectives should talk with defendants in custody, that there's an expectation the officers are aware of laws regarding their rights.

He said the defense attorney requested a meeting with EPD, and they granted that request.

Watson said it didn't appear that EPD or the district attorney's office attempted to hide the interview or stood to benefit from hiding it.

”There doesn't seem to be anything to be gained by any purposeful non-disclosure,” Watson said.