ST. GEORGE — The city secretly recorded defendants meeting with their attorneys for at least seven months inside the Staten Island Courthouse for months after a judge ordered them turned off in 2015, lawyers charged in court documents Monday.
The Legal Aid Society and White & Case law firm filed a motion against the city and Department of Corrections on Monday morning after they discovered they used surveillance cameras inside the pre-arraignment interview room of the courthouse despite a strongly worded decision in 2015 by a federal judge to keep them off, the New York Daily News first reported.
"It's critical that people who are detained are free to speak openly with their attorney to provide as much information at this juncture as they can," said Christopher Pisciotta, head of Legal Aid's Staten Island criminal practice.
"Cameras in the interview room, monitoring and recording that communication, makes the right to counsel as mandated by the Constitution meaningless."
The lawyers filed a motion claiming the city and Department of Corrections were in contempt of the federal court ruling and asked the cameras physically be removed from the interview rooms.
One of the cameras was on for at least seven months and Legal Aid isn't sure how long the other three were rolling, according to the motion.
Lawyers for Legal Aid and White & Case on Monday asked a judge to order the city to physically remove the cameras because they already violated an order to keep them off.
"We will review the motion and respond accordingly," a spokesman for the city's Law Department said in a statement Monday.
The long-delayed, $320 million courthouse opened in September 2015 with its lawyer interview rooms outfitted with security cameras, the only one in the city to have them.
After the opening, Legal Aid sued the city to remove the cameras and Judge George Daniels ordered them to stop recording with the cameras the next month.
The Department of Corrections kept the cameras inside the rooms, but said they were turned off, and tried to find legal ways to use them, Pisciotta said. The city filed a motion in January to be allowed to turn them on again.
During the discovery process, Legal Aid found out the cameras were rolling for several months after Daniels' decision and the city eventually dropped their case.
"They had been turned on, were monitoring and recording for some period of time," said Pisciotta. "We're very disappointed that the court order was not diligently enforced."
Legal Aid hasn't been able to find out what happened to the recordings that were taken, Pisciotta said.
Clients have said they felt uncomfortable about the cameras since the decision, but Pisciotta said lawyers assured them — because of the court order — they were turned off.