STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The Legal Aid Society wants video cameras removed from four interview rooms at the Staten Island Courthouse, contending the cameras have been recording private attorney-client conversations in violation of a judge’s order to turn them off.
In legal papers filed Monday in Manhattan federal court, Legal Aid asked a federal judge to hold the city and the Correction Department in contempt for violating an October 2015 preliminary injunction halting the recordings.
The city has said the cameras in four pre-arraignment interview rooms at the courthouse have been inadvertently operating at various times since Oct. 20, 2015, although they all were turned off as of Feb. 17 of this year, according to Legal Aid’s filing.
Legal Aid, the nonprofit group which represents those who can’t afford an attorney, has contested the use of the cameras since the new $230-million courthouse was opened in late September 2015.
“We think it’s a clear violation of the judge’s order, and we’re now asking the judge to order the cameras be physically removed,” said Colin White, of White & Case, the Manhattan-based firm also involved in the case. “That’s the only way we can be sure that meetings between attorneys and their clients are not being monitored and recorded.”
Christopher Pisciotta, senior attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society on Staten Island, said defendants, must “be able to feel they can freely and openly tell their attorney anything,” especially before their arraignments when they first appear before a judge.
“Having a camera in the attorney-client interview room renders the right to counsel meaningless at a very critical moment,” said Pisciotta.
Lawyers say the initial arraignment interview is where criminal defendants first meet their attorneys and form the basis of the lawyer-client relationship.
That meeting allows lawyers to explore investigative leads, assess the client’s mental health and develop information to make a bail request.
Having those interactions recorded, even just visually, could impede open and frank discussions between defendants and attorneys, Legal Aid contends.
Attorneys fear discussions could be lip-read and used against clients. Video tape would also reveal body markings a client shows an attorney in confidence.
After the courthouse opened, Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice at Legal Aid, said she was told the cameras were recording video only and not audio. However, the cameras have an audio component, she said.
Luongo said then the Correction Department advised Legal Aid the cameras were installed for safety reasons, specifically to ensure that prisoners coming from the holding pens don’t hurt themselves inside the interview booths or drag another prisoner inside and hurt that person.
She also said Legal Aid had been given no proof showing the cameras were necessary. She noted that none of the interview rooms in other boroughs are equipped with cameras, nor are interview booths on Rikers Island.
Pisciotta estimated that 10,000 suspects have been arraigned since October 2015; however, it’s unclear how many of their interviews with lawyers were recorded.
According to Legal Aid’s court filing, the city, in January, moved to lift the injunction banning the cameras’ use.
The city later withdrew that motion, but disclosed on March 2 the cameras had been in use at various times since the October 2015 injunction, said Legal Aid.
Without providing specifics, the city said all four cameras had been recording for some period of time after Oct. 20, 2015, Legal Aid’s court papers said. One camera recorded from Nov. 20, 2015, to June 20, 2016, and possibly again thereafter.
The city maintains the recordings were “inadvertent,” and all cameras were turned off as of Feb. 17, say Legal Aid’s filing.
A city Law Department spokesman said the city “will review the motion and respond accordingly.”