Constitutional Law

11th Circuit nixes immunity for sheriff's officers who recorded attorney-client conversation

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Upholding an earlier summary judgment ruling by a trial judge, a federal appeals court has held that two Florida law enforcement officers who secretly watched and recorded an attorney-client meeting violated the Fourth Amendment and can be held liable in a federal civil rights suit.

Rejecting a qualified immunity argument, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Tuesday that the St. John’s County sheriff’s officers can be sued personally because their conduct violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, among other constitutional prohibitions, Courthouse News reports.

The civil rights suit by attorney Anne Marie Gennusa and her then-client, Joel Studivant, also alleged violation of the Federal Wiretap Act.

At issue in the case is a June 2009 meeting in a room in the sheriff’s office. Initially, a sheriff’s detective interviewed Studivant about a possible misdemeanor violation of a domestic violence injunction. When the detective left the room, Gennusa and Studivant discussed the case, eventually agreeing that he would not complete a sworn written statement he had originally agreed to prepare.

Unbeknownst to the two, a hidden camera was recording their meeting, and sheriff’s officers were monitoring it. Studivant was not under arrest, there was no search warrant, no signs warned of possible surveillance and the two had not been told their conversation could be recorded, the appeals court explains in its written opinion (PDF)

When a detective came back into the room and demanded the draft statement, the two refused to provide it. The detective then grabbed it, as instructed by a supervisor, allegedly breaking Gennusa’s fingernail while doing so.

While the appeals court suggested that an exigent circumstances exception might conceivably have applied to the seizure of the draft statement under other circumstances, the sheriff’s officers failed to meet their burden of proving it, the opinion states.

“The monitoring and recording of the privileged attorney-client conversations between Mr. Studivant and Ms. Gennusa, without notice and without a warrant, violated their clearly established Fourth Amendment rights,” the 11th Circuit concluded. “So too, on this record, did the warrantless seizure of Mr. Studivant’s written statement from Ms. Gennusa.”

Leagle provides a copy of the July 2012 federal district court ruling on the parties’ motions for summary judgment in the Jacksonville case.

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