A State Police investigation concluded that a network of hidden cameras in interrogation rooms at the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office did not violate state law on its face, though it noted the cameras could well have been used improperly.
The investigation was completed in May and turned over to the New Orleans Advocate on Friday in response to a public-records request. As part of his probe, the State Police investigator who filed the report, Trooper Oliver Jackson, contacted officials in three district attorneys’ offices, who opined that the hidden cameras — which have since been removed — did not violate the law because there is “no expectation of privacy within an interview room of a police or sheriff’s department.”
But the cameras “could very well violate the law if used in an unlawful manner,” the report added.
“I was informed that an example of misuse would be for law enforcement to intentionally place an attorney and his client in an interview room, and secretly record the conversation of privileged information divulged by the suspect to his attorney for the purpose of furthering their investigation,” Jackson wrote.
The report says no evidence has surfaced that detectives resorted to such trickery, or even thought about it.
The hidden cameras came to light this week when Tregg Wilson, a lawyer and until recently Sheriff Mike Tregre’s chief deputy, filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging Tregre fired him after he raised questions about the cameras to the sheriff and then alerted State Police.
On May 24, Jackson’s report says, he interviewed Wilson, who told him that he had learned from former Major Robert Hay that the department’s interrogation rooms were rigged with hidden cameras that ran on a continuous feed. Though the cameras were designed to capture interviews of criminal suspects, Wilson noted that they might also record conversations between suspects and their attorney — which would be illegal and could jeopardize criminal prosecutions.
So far, no one has identified a case where that happened. Wilson’s attorney, Todd Slack, said Thursday that he believed the interrogation rooms were used “for a variety of purposes,” but that his client did not have firsthand knowledge that conversations between attorneys and criminal suspects were secretly recorded.
According to the State Police report, Tregre said the system was installed in 2007 by his predecessor, Wayne Jones, who served four terms as sheriff before losing to Tregre in 2011. Tregre said he ordered the hidden cameras removed in May shortly after he learned about them.
On Friday, Jones told the New Orleans Advocate that he was responsible for installing the primary cameras in the interrogation rooms — which are not hidden — but he said the backup cameras were unbeknownst to him.
“I don’t know what the current sheriff is talking about,” Jones said. “Our cameras were never running 24-7, because there was absolutely no reason to do that,” he added.
Major Troy Hidalgo, the St. John Sheriff’s Office head of technology, backed up Tregre’s account, saying the system was installed in 2007. Hidalgo told State Police the cameras were upgraded periodically, but that “none of the upgrades have changed the function of the system.”
The backup cameras were motion-activated, he said. The audio and video were captured on a server and retained for 30 days, he said.
Hidalgo said he was one of two people on the sheriff’s staff with the ability to “review, program and produce copies of recordings captured” by the backup camera, according to the report.
Tregre “had no involvement or probable knowledge of the capabilities of the system’s vast network,” Hidalgo said.
He added that no one had claimed their rights had been violated by the hidden cameras.
Hay, who retired from the department over the summer, told the investigator that most detectives were aware of the backup system, “but were under the impression that the system on the server only turned on when a detective inserted a disc and manually turned on the main recording system.” In fact, the cameras were recording whether or not the detective had activated the main system.
When detectives learned the hidden cameras were activating automatically, they “became concerned that this feature took away their ability to control their interviews,” according to the report.
Hay said in his interview with State Police that “when a detective decides to interview or interrogate a suspect, the detective may not want to turn the video/audio on until a certain point into the interview with the suspect.”
The report also notes that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brady decision, the Sheriff’s Office should have been turning over all of the tapes of its interviews, not just the ones detectives manually controlled. The report suggests they weren’t doing so because detectives didn’t realize the hidden tapes actually captured more material.
That could create violations of the Brady doctrine, Jackson wrote.
“The fact that the detectives were not aware that their entire interview was being recorded does not excuse detectives from providing the courts with everything that transpired in the interview or interrogation,” the report said.