Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Prison Inmate Does Not Forfeit Attorney-Client Privilege

United States v. DeFonte, Docket No. 06-1046-cr (March 14, 2006) (before Jacobs, Wesley, C.J.J., Koeltl, D.J.)

This interesting per curiam decision holds that a prison inmate retains her attorney-client prvilege with respect to a diary that she maintained while incarcerated.

Facts: Defendant DeFonte, a (former, presumably) correction officer at the MCC, was on trial for crimes that he was charged with having committed in the course of his employment. One of the witnesses against him was to be an inmate, Francia Collazos. Shortly before trial, the government learned, and ultimately obtained possession of, a diary that she maintained in her cell containing her writings about incidents inovling DeFonte and conversations with her own attorney and the prosecutors. When DeFonte’s attorney learned of the diary, he requested that it be turned over to the defense as 3500 and Giglio material. Collazos moved to intervene. She sought a protective order claiming that those writings were covered by the attorney-client privilege. The district court (Batts, J.) ordered that the diary be turned over, holding that it was not privileged because Collazos had no expectation of privacy in the contents of her cell. Collazos moved for stay, and the case was heard by the Court of Appeals on its motion calendar on the first day of trial. The opinion was filed that same day. (It is reassuring that the Court can issue published opinions with alacrity when the need presents itself.)

Holding: The Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s order and remanded the matter for a hearing.

First, the Court held that inmates retain the attorney-client privilege, despite their almost total lack of Fourth Amendment rights. However, the Court concluded that the entries in Collazos’ diary fell into different categories, with differing potential applications of the privilege, and that a hearing would be necessary to fully resolve the issues.

The first set of entries, Collazos’ memorializations of her private conversations with her own attorney, were clearly covered by the privilege. Collazos asserted that she never consented to the diary’s being taken from her possession, and there was no evidence that she either shared or intended to share those entries with anyone else. However, the Court noted that the privilege could be deemed waived if evidence emerged at the hearing that Collazos “treated the notes in question in such a careless manner as to negate her intent to keep them confidential.”

The second group of entries consisted of recordings of events in Collazos’ daily life, including incidents with DeFonte, and discussions with prosecutors, which she claimed were made for the purpose of later discussions with her attorney, though the writings themselves were not provided to the attorney. For these entries, the Court held that the privilege might still apply: “an outline of what a client wishes to discuss with counsel — and which is subsequently discussed with one’s counsel — would seem to fit squarely within our understanding of the scope of the privilege.” Thus, for these entries, the question to be resolved at the hearing is whether Collazos actually communicated the contents of these entries to her attorney.

Comment: This case arises from a highly unusual set of facts that is not particularly likely to recur, since it is doubtful that large numbers of prision inmates maintain a diary at all, let alone one that would reveal that the inmate is cooperating with the government. More intriguing, however, are the implications of this decision for an inmate’s telephone conversations with the attorney, which are recorded (inmates implicitly consent to this by virtue of a notice posted by the phones warning them that all calls will be recorded) and in-person meetings with the attorney which the government, under some limited circumstances, has the authority to record without consent.

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