Muskogee County Courthouse surveillance system is under fire

Trials have been delayed while investigators look into allegations of possible eavesdropping at the Muskogee County Courthouse.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Published: October 26, 2012
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Matt Stagg, information technology director for the sheriff's department, declined to comment.

Testifying in Norman's courtroom this month, Stagg said he had supplied the district attorney's office with 10 DVDs of archived courtroom security files since the system was installed.

Sheriff Charles Pearson said the surveillance software was lumped with other computer programs, with each typically uploaded in unison to department computers. When the department agreed to share some of its reports and criminal databases with the district attorney's office, he said, the courtroom surveillance software and archives were inadvertently shared as well.

“We've gone paperless, and that's part of it,” Pearson said. “There's about four or five different programs, and that way they don't have to come down and ask us for them — they can access it themselves.”

The laptops have been returned to the sheriff's department, he said.

State and federal law prohibit the intentional recording of a person's oral or electronic communications without his knowledge. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been asked to assist state investigators in Muskogee County.

Jimmy Bunn, chief legal counsel for the OSBI, said investigators will look at whether parties were taped and whether they were aware they were taped.

“The question becomes, is the sheriff … authorized to use a security system that records and captures oral communication unknowingly between the parties,” Bunn said.

He compared the case to one regarding the taping of jailhouse phone systems: “If there's a conspicuous sign indicating the phone calls are being monitored by Department of Corrections and the prisoner still uses that phone with that notice, then they have given consent,” he said.

Cherbini said the county bar association was notified of the surveillance system when it was installed.

Similar systems provide security at courthouses across the state, but most are video-only. Kiowa County Sheriff Russ Tate said he decided against audio when installing a surveillance system in Hobart because it was more expensive and he was concerned it could violate wiretapping laws.

Gina Hendryx, general counsel for the Oklahoma Bar Association, said the association is looking into whether any attorney rules of conduct were violated.