Ellis County lawyers alarmed over secret recordings

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on October 5, 2010 at 10:13 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 6 at 2:39 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

ELLIS COUNTY — Why is there a camera located in a private meeting room recording confidential conversations in the new Ellis Coutny Courthouse?

It's a question being asked by several defense attorneys who first discovered the device last week.

The new courthouse in Waxahachie has been open for about three months. Inside there is what appears to be a security camera located in a private meeting room that News 8 has learned records sound and pictures.

"Everybody is pretty upset and no one knew; no one had noticed," said Waxahachie-based defense attorney Cindy Ermatinger.

The camera is in a corner of the ceiling of the district attorney's office on the fourth floor, in a private room just for defense attorneys and their clients to review video evidence.

"We were more than a little surprised," said defense attorney Greg Lundberg.

When the two attorneys made the discovery last week, they first wondered if they were they being videotaped. Their second question was: Is there an audio recording device attached?

"When we talk with our clients or study our client's case, we should have confidentiality, we should have privacy. The DA's office, they just cannot be involved with that," said Ermatinger. "They cannot listen in. They cannot take pictures of that. They can't do any of that."

Not only is the group of defense attorneys alarmed at what the DA's office might be seeing and hearing that could compromise their defense; they question the legality of any recordings.

"If they can hear that and see that, that's a crime and it's just cheating," said defense attorney Mark Griffith.

Griffith quotes Title 18, section 2511 of the United States Code, which makes it a crime to "intentionally intercept... a wire, oral, or electronic communication" ... "when the device is affixed to, or otherwise transmits a signal through a wire, cable or other connection..."

"But the audio takes it into the realm of both federal offense and a state offense," Griffith said.

Ellis County District Attorney Joe Grubbs tells News 8 there are identical security cameras throughout the new courthouse, and that they are only there for security purposes.

"We have not recorded anything, don't want to record anything or any of their conversations," Grubbs said. "I did not know it was in there."

But the Director of Courthouse Technology, Teral Crawford, confirms the defense attorneys' suspicions. "It has been confirmed that these cameras are equipped with mics," Crawford said. But he adds, "Any monitoring of the audio signal does not play back anything discernible."

"Whether it's for our security or not, it's not proper for it to be there," said attorney Lundberg. "It's just highly improper."

The District Attorney says now that this has been brought to his attention, he says he will address it.

The defense attorneys say the damage is done. They have already notified federal agents, and are calling for a complete investigation into what has already been recorded, and whether any of their cases have been compromised as a result.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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