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Sheriff's sergeant arraigned on criminal eavesdropping charges

Defense says actions were misunderstanding of law, not intent to violate law for nefarious purposes

An Alameda County sheriff's sergeant was arraigned last week on four felony charges for allegedly making illegal and secret recordings of juvenile suspects in an interview room in March.

At his brief appearance at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse in Oakland on Oct. 17, Sgt. James Russell, 44, didn't enter a plea to four counts of eavesdropping on or recording confidential communications for his alleged actions at the Eden Township sheriff's substation in San Leandro on March 15.

Prosecutor Keydon Levy asked for $40,000 bail for Russell, who is on paid suspension from his job and has been free on his own recognizance since the Alameda County District Attorney's Office filed charges against him on Oct. 3.

But Russell's attorney Judith Odbert said Russell doesn't pose a public safety threat and isn't a flight risk because he's lived in the Bay Area his entire life, is married and has three children.

Referring to the charges against Russell, Odbert said, "When all the facts come to light it will be shown that this was more of a misunderstanding of the law and there was not any intent to violate the law for nefarious purposes."

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Mark McCannon said his primary concern is the public safety and he agrees that Russell doesn't pose a public safety or flight risk so he allowed Russell to remain free on his own recognizance.

Russell's next court hearing is at the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin on Oct. 31 for a potential plea entry.

The allegations against Russell came to light in August when the county public defender's office provided evidence of the recording of confidential conversations between juvenile suspects and their lawyers.

The incident that led to the alleged eavesdropping occurred on March 15, when sheriff's deputies responded to a call about an attempted robbery at the Lake Chabot Public Market in Castro Valley, according to court documents.

Four teenage suspects were arrested and were taken to the Eden Township substation, where a deputy contacted the public defender's office so that the teens could consult with an attorney before being interviewed.

Russell's body camera recorded a conversation he had with Lt. Timothy Schellenberg in which Russell said he has been recording conversations between attorneys and clients, according to court documents.

Prosecutors say such interviews are privileged communications and recording them is a crime.

The DA's office dismissed the cases against the four teens when it learned about the secret recordings.

Prosecutors are still reviewing all other juvenile cases submitted by the sheriff's office since the beginning of the year to see if more cases will be dismissed.

— Bay City News Service

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