Defense attorney wins fight to get into jail

Bill Miller was sick of being turned away when he went to the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center to see his clients, so he did what any veteran defense attorney does when they hit a wall.

He filed a motion.

Although state law says it's a misdemeanor for any jailer to refuse a lawyer who wants to visit a prisoner, the code leaves some wiggle room, saying attorneys must make a "proper application" before they need be admitted.

In practice, deputies who run local detention facilities, including the downtown jail and honor farm, lock out attorneys during meal times, saying their staff is too busy to bring an inmate to an interview room.

That's inconvenient for Miller, who is tied to the court schedule, making the noon recess and the late afternoon his best time to confer with clients.

He filed a motion challenging the system, and won.

"For years, the jail has just taken an arrogant attitude that they could dictate whatever they wanted," Miller said, explaining a favorable ruling he received last week.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver heard arguments from Miller, who said he should be able to visit clients at any time of the day or night, and an attorney from the county counsel's office, who said the jail needs to limit visits due to staffing needs.

The judge split the difference, penning an order that says custodial deputies must let lawyers see clients who are charged with felonies any time between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Previous visiting hours for attorneys varied by housing unit. For example, one unit let lawyers in from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. Another unit let lawyers in from 9 to 10 a.m. and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.

"It may place an additional burden on the sheriff's staff," said Deputy County Counsel Dean Wright. "We're going to comply with the court's ruling."

Deputy Royjindar Singh, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, said detention staff are revising their visitation policy.

Miller said he tested the new rules on a recent morning about 10:40 a.m., a time that had been off limits. Initially, he met with resistance. Order in hand, he made it past the gatekeeper.

"Keeping me from seeing my client is against the code," Miller said. "In fact, it's illegal."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.