MFIA Wins Access to Records Showing if Maine Jail Recorded Attorney-Client Calls
After a two-year legal fight by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) at Yale Law School, a Maine Superior Court has ordered the release of records that show whether a county jail recorded privileged attorney-client phone calls.
In June 2021, a reporter for MFIA’s client, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, which publishes local newspaper the Maine Monitor, submitted a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request to York County. She sought a spreadsheet that showed whether the county was recording privileged phone calls between jailed defendants and their attorneys. The county denied the request, claiming that the spreadsheet in question, called a “Call Detail Record” (CDR), was not a public record under the FOAA.
Two months later, MFIA and Maine law firm Preti Flaherty filed a lawsuit on behalf of the center, challenging the denial under the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
Now, the court has ordered York County to release the CDRs requested by the Monitor. The court found that the CDRs relating to attorney-client calls are public records under the purview of open records laws because “they contain information relating to the transaction of governmental business.”
Reporters used call records to reveal that Maine jails recorded nearly 1,000 ostensibly private attorney-client phone calls between jailed people and their lawyers in one year.
Part of the county jail’s call management system, CDRs contain metadata associated with jailed people’s calls, indicating whether the person’s call was recorded, the name of the person, the telephone number dialed, date and time of the call and the amount charged for the call. They do not capture content of the calls.
In its reporting, the Monitor has used CDRs obtained from Maine jails to reveal that five other facilities recorded nearly 1,000 ostensibly private attorney-client phone calls between jailed people and their lawyers in one year. Dozens of those recordings, the Monitor found, were later shared and listened to by law enforcement or prosecutors.
“As the Monitor’s reporting has already shown, there are serious concerns with the way Maine jails treat the attorney-client relationship,” said former MFIA Local Journalism Fellow Stephen Stich ’17, who worked on the case. “The records in the case will help to show just how deep the problem goes and may pave the way for additional legislation to address the issue.”
Although the requested CDRs involved calls between non-government actors, they shed light on how York County administers the detention of people in its custody. The court’s decision does not take a position on CDRs in general, only those relating to calls between attorneys and clients.
The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.