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Public defender’s office files complaint after Harford County warden ends virtual attorney-client meetings at jail

Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender is seeking to force the warden of the Harford County Detention Center to allow virtual attorney-client meetings, which have ceased despite known cases of COVID-19 in the jail.

In an 11-page complaint filed Wednesday in Harford County Circuit Court, the public defender’s office contends that the virtual meeting system attorneys used to communicate with their clients in the jail since January was cut off on April 5. The office says the change “unreasonably infringes” defendants’ rights to counsel, puts its attorneys at risk and gives wealthier people greater access to representation than indigent clients.

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“This is the first instance I know of that, during an outbreak [of COVID-19], a local detention center has forced attorneys ... to come [in-person],” said Kelly Casper, the District Public Defender for Harford County.

The county jail had eight known cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, said Cristie Hopkins, a spokesperson for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the facility.

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According to the suit, Harford County Warden Daniel Galbraith said the virtual visitation process raised security and manpower concerns. Hopkins would not discuss the security concerns with allowing virtual meetings between attorneys and clients, saying discussion of any security matters could “leave the facility and everyone who visits the facility vulnerable to a safety breach.”

But the public defender’s office argues virtual visits are no more time-consuming than the in-person procedure, without the risk of coronavirus transmission, according to the complaint.

“Even in the absence of a pandemic, [the jail] could not prohibit an attorney from conducting a virtual visit, or consultation by phone, without establishing valid security concerns that would require that restriction,” the suit states.

Virtual communication is not very different from in-person communication, the complaint states. During a virtual visitation, a tablet was place on one side of booth divided by plexiglass, where an attorney would typically sit to speak with their client, sitting on the opposite side of the barrier. Detention center staff were required to join a Microsoft Teams meeting at the beginning of the day and end it when the visits with public defender attorneys concluded, according to the complaint. Staff also had to escort the right client to and from the booth where inmates speak to their attorneys.

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“Functionally, this procedure was extremely similar to attorney-client visits that were conducted in-person,” the complaint states. “Staff at the detention center were still required to bring inmates to the attorney booth for visitation and retrieve them upon notification that the visit had concluded.”

Complicating matters is the fact that the public defender’s office is supposed to receive daily updates on where an inmate is housed in the jail, but that information is “subject to change without notification to counsel,” the complaint states.

Recently, an inmate who was positive for COVID-19 was brought to visit with their public defender in-person. The attorney was not notified of their client’s COVID status or a change in housing to the dormitory for inmates who tested positive for the virus, according to the complaint.

Casper said that attorney learned their client’s COVID-positivity mid-conversation.

Hopkins said “all options are being discussed,” as it related to whether alternatives to exclusively in-person attorney-client meetings were under consideration.

The jail does not routinely release medical information concerning inmates, Hopkins said. Visitors to the jail are subjected to a temperature check and are required to wear masks — as are inmates. COVID-positive patients wear N-95 masks, she said.

When the public defender’s office was told that virtual meetings would no longer happen, it tried to negotiate, offering to use other virtual methods like the court’s Polycom system, which the courts use to conduct bail reviews, according to the complaint. Galbraith rejected the idea, saying the detention center was not staffed or built to support that type of activity, and offered no alternatives, the complaint states.

Attorneys from the public defender’s office often meet with clients that are awaiting a bail review hearing, which typically occurs very close to their date of arrest.

Those new arrivals are often held in R-dorm before being transferred to another housing area, the complaint states. Public defenders knew of one COVID-positive person in the R-dorm as of Wednesday, the document states.

Inmates can provide an attorney’s phone number to the detention center to place unmonitored calls from the jail, but that inmate’s commissary account is charged for every minute he or she is on the phone, the complaint states, giving wealthier clients more access to their attorneys than indigent people the public defender’s office represents. Those calls are also not private; the area where they are placed is accessible to other inmates.

Casper said the public defender’s office had not yet heard a response from the sheriff’s office. Casper said she has heard of jails in neighboring counties allowing virtual attorney-client conferences, particularly if there is an outbreak of COVID in their detention centers. The office would like to resolve the issue without the need for litigation, she said.

The first hearing in the matter is scheduled for April 28, according to online court records.

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