The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office violated defendants’ constitutional rights when it changed its jail visitation hours last month and restricted defense attorneys’ access to their clients, a judge ruled Friday.
Presiding Superior Court Criminal Judge Anna Baca wrote in her ruling that budget issues are “not an allowable basis” for limiting defendants’ access to counsel and the courts. She ordered the sheriff’s office to restore its former visitation schedule for members of the legal community until it fashions a more reasonable schedule with public defenders during mediation. The hours, which do not affect visitation hours for members of the public, must be restored by Dec. 13.
The decision follows three weeks of hearings during which public defenders, court interpreters, mental health examiners, probation officers and defense experts explained how they can’t do their jobs effectively because of the sheriff’s new limited visitation hours. At least 21 public defenders and 50 probation officers filed requests that Baca force the sheriff to reinstate special visitation privileges for legal professionals.
On Nov. 12, visitation at five Maricopa County jails — Fourth Avenue, Lower Buckeye, Towers, Estrella and Durango — was reduced from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Friday, to 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day but Friday, when only legal professionals may visit.
The change in hours was an attempt to curb overtime spending: The sheriff’s office exceeded its budgeted overtime by $2 million in the first quarter, sheriff’s spokeswoman Lisa Allen MacPherson said last month.
Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Paul Chagolla said in November that the office needed to change its operations to cut expenditures regardless of the effect on other agencies.
“We cannot carry the remainder of the law enforcement community on our backs,” Chagolla said.
Public defender Dave Kephart, who led the questioning during the hearings with public defender Jim Leonard, said he was “ecstatic” about the ruling. “This ensures that we’ll be able to do our job,” he said.
Leonard said the “bombshell” was dropped when attorneys during a death-penalty trial were denied access to the jails after trial in the evenings. He said the case could now result in a mistrial and ultimately cost the taxpayers “a huge amount of money.”
“The sheriff receives a budget of $300 million a year and he cannot perform his most basic function of keeping the jails open,” Leonard said.
But Kephart was sympathetic to the sheriff’s situation. “It’s not a beat-up on the sheriff — they have a budget that they need to work within,” he said. He noted that both the public defender’s office and the sheriff’s office draw from the same limited resources.
Jack MacIntyre, one of the sheriff’s chief deputies, called Baca’s ruling “biased,” blaming her for ignoring “any testimony that didn’t fit with her preconceived notion of how this would go.”
MacIntyre said no one was denied access who needed it. Public defenders were inconvenienced, but not deprived access, he said. MacIntyre declined to say whether the sheriff’s office would appeal the decision or try to file a special action to overturn Baca’s ruling.
During the hearings, witnesses testified that their obligations in court in the mornings prevent them from visiting their clients in jail until the afternoon, and attorneys in trial often cannot visit until after 5 p.m.