Judge: Fulton DA again has access to phone system, though not as much

A Fulton County judge has rescinded her order for the sheriff to restore prosecutors’unfettered access to the inmate phone system at the jail.

But she made it clear she expects Sheriff Ted Jackson and District Attorney Paul Howard to settle their feud over it.

Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan wrote in her latest order, “The court (and no doubt the general public) expects that the sheriff and the district attorney will work together as law enforcement professionals to expedite a return to more comprehensive and more direct access, consistent with the Sheriff’s Office’s reasonable desire to ensure that such outside access is properly regulated.”

It’s the sheriff’s prerogative to decide who can and cannot listen in on calls placed from the cellblocks, she said. She wrote that Jackson had assured her he would give the District Attorney’s Office “more direct and more complete access … as soon as the sheriff has developed a more rigorous and formal access protocol.”

According to Jackson’s lawyer, Joyce Lewis, there are now 69 “active users” who do not work for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. More than half of those are assigned to the Atlanta Police Department and and the rest belong to individuals who have been “deputized” or are members to task forces, like the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. 

The dispute between two of the county’s top law enforcement officers seemed to have become a tit-for-tat in mid-August when Fulton County prosecutors learned that they no longer could monitor inmate calls whenever they wanted because their PIN numbers had been disabled. Howard said then that lawyers on his staff needed immediate access to the system to ensure defendants weren’t threatening witnesses or plotting escapes or other crimes.

It was through the use of the jail’s Securus Technology system that prosecutors listened in on Claud “Tex” McIver, who is charged with murdering his wife. Based on those calls, they alleged that McIver tried to influence witnesses and tried to get a friend who is a judge to push the judge in his case to grant him a bond.

Animosity between Howard and Jackson were in plain view during a June 30 court hearing over where McIver was being held. Jail officials had transferred the 74-year-old McIver from the medical unit at the main jail to a much smaller lockup in north Fulton County where he was able to bypass the telephone monitoring system.

In an explosive court hearing, prosecutors accused the sheriff of giving McIver preferential treatment.

Howard said Jackson then terminated his office’s access to the phone system because of harsh words that were exchanged in court.

Both men have now hired attorneys.

Lewis, who represents Jackson, said Thursday that he “was exercising a reasonable access.” While the Sheriff’s Office develops policies and procedures, Lewis said, prosecutors can get a subpoena for copies of recordings and that information will be provided “fairly quickly.”

Lewis said it was not known how long it would take to develop new policies.

Attorney Ken Hodges, who is representing Howard, said while Fulton prosecutors have been assured they will eventually regain access to the system, they expect it to fall short of what they had before. “That access may not ever return to the access that we had,” Hodges said.

Howard has said the loss of access to the system created “some critical public safety issues.” So the district attorney in late September asked Tusan to order Jackson to reinstate his access, which she did without first hearing from the sheriff.

Tusan wrote in August she ordered the sheriff to restore prosecutors’ access to Securus because of concern that limiting who could monitor phone calls could mean officials might not know if an inmate was planning to escape or was arranging for a witness to be harmed when they came to the courthouse. 

The sheriff has since agreed to “re-established access for the District Attorney's Office -- although in a manner that is less direct and less comprehensive than previously allowed,” Tusan wrote in her Oct. 25 order. 

“This is the sheriff's prerogative. Moreover, the sheriff has represented to the court that more direct and more complete access -- access that will provide greater protection to the citizens who visit and work in the courthouse -- will be afforded to the District Attorney's Office as soon as the sheriff has developed a more rigorous and formal access protocol and as soon as the District Attorney's Office complies.”

Jackson’s office said he cut off the access when officials realized the District Attorney’s Office had more PINs than people working at the office.

“That made him very concerned that there wasn’t appropriate oversight of the way folks in the DA’s office office were accessing information,” Lewis said. “What the sheriff wanted to do was make sure the sheriff’s office knew who was requesting the information.”

Howard’s office said many of those PINs were no longer active at the time.

Now none are active.

Howard has said surveillance via Securus has allowed authorities to stop escapes, prevent killings ordered by defendants or ward off witness intimidation.

The system, used in jails and prisons throughout Georgia, also has a feature that thwarts inmates who make calls using someone else’s identification and another that alerts authorities if a call from the jail is being made to a specific geographic area.

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