Deputy Charged With Felony For Following Illegal Department Policy
Oakland, CA – A veteran Alameda County sheriff’s deputy has pleaded not guilty to felony charges accusing him of recording privileged conversations of suspects while attempting to follow department policy.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) Sergeant James Russell, 45, was charged with four counts of felony eavesdropping on Oct. 3, 2018, stemming from an incident that occurred on March 15, 2018, the Piedmont Patch reported.
According to court documents, ACSO deputies arrested four juveniles on attempted robbery charges, and brought them to the Eden Township substation.
When they arrived, a deputy contacted the public defenders’ office to give the suspects an opportunity to speak with legal counsel before they were interviewed by law enforcement, the Piedmont Patch reported.
In August of 2018, public defender John Plaine became aware that Sgt. Russell had recorded the teens’ conversations with legal council as he was going through discovery in the case, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Sgt. Russell’s bodycam footage captured him telling ACSO Lieutenant Timothy Schellenberg that he had been recording conversations between suspects and their attorneys, the Piedmont Patch reported.
Prosecutors argued that those conversations were privileged communications, and that Sgt. Russell broke the law by recording them.
The district attorney’s office also dropped all charges against the teens after they learned about the recordings.
But the sergeant’s attorneys have argued that the 20-year veteran-of-the-force did nothing “nefarious,” and that he was simply following ACSO policy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The policy mandated that “all prisoners being left unattended in an interview room will be continuously visually and audibly monitored,” according to court documents.
“The facts in the instant case are not nefarious but ignorant,” Sgt. Russell’s attorney, Judith Odbert, told the court in 2018. “Sgt. Russell had no intent to listen to or utilize the communication and had a rational basis [the directive from the Sheriff’s department] for his belief that the recording should be made.”
"When all the facts come to light, it will be shown that this was more of a misunderstanding of the law and there was not any intent to violate the law for nefarious purposes,” Odbert added, according to the Piedmont Patch.
During a preliminary hearing in 2018, Odbert questioned two of Sgt. Russell’s supervisors about a law change that went into effect in January of that year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Under the new law, law enforcement was required to provide juveniles under the age of 16 with an opportunity to speak with a lawyer prior to questioning them.
Lt. Schellenberg and Alameda County Assistant Sheriff Charles Casey Nice testified that the department did not specifically train deputies on how to handle the law change as it related to the mandatory monitoring policies the agency had in place at the time, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
In fact, the department failed to address the issue at all until the allegations were made against Sgt. Russell.
Sgt. Russell, a father of three who is married to another Alameda County employee, was placed on paid administrative leave prior to the charges being filed against him, the East Bay Times reported.
In September, the judge denied his motion to reduce the charges to misdemeanor offenses, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
He pleaded not guilty on Oct. 8, and is due back in court on Nov. 13.
Sgt. Russell faces up to five years in prison if he is convicted of the four felony counts against him, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The district attorney’s office has also been reviewing all juvenile cases to determine whether or not more pending charges will be dismissed in those matters, according to the Piedmont Patch.