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Courtroom privacy under fire in Washington County

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

Attorneys in Washington County say they're concerned that their private conversations with clients are being recorded by a system recently installed in the courthouse.

“Right now, attorneys have to be aware that pretty much anything in the courtroom can be overheard and possibly recorded,” said Blane A. Black, president of the Washington County Bar Association. “It doesn't seem to be a concern in other counties, but it seems to be a concern in ours.”

County officials paid $60,000 to outfit six courtrooms inside the 113-year-old building with digital microphones purchased from SMB Electronics Office Products Pittsburgh in Avalon. The physical recording system is housed in a separate room.

Black said he was told by President Judge Debbie O'Dell-Seneca at a seminar for about 50 attorneys that the goal of the recording system was to record the proceedings and have someone transcribe them later to replace the salaries and benefits of court reporters, and because the digital recordings take up less space than paper.

Neither O'Dell-Seneca nor Washington County Deputy Court Administrator Tim McCullough returned multiple calls.

Attorneys who often use the courtrooms for private chats with their clients or to video teleconference with their clients from the jail are concerned that court employees can overhear what's being said, even if it isn't being recorded. Black said O'Dell-Seneca assured him that the monitor listens in to make sure the recording equipment is still working, not to eavesdrop.

Glenn Alterio, Washington County's chief public defender, said the microphones have made attorneys limit how they communicate with their clients. A room that was once thought to be private may no longer be, Alterio said.

“The understanding was that those conversations were confidential. It appears now that maybe that wasn't the case,” Alterio said. “Some people seem to think it's like Big Brother.”

Digital recording systems are in courthouses across the state, including Beaver, Greene and Allegheny counties.

Claire Capristo, court administrator for Allegheny County, said 10 courtrooms and 11 smaller hearing rooms in the Family Division are outfitted with a similar system, installed more than a decade ago when the Family Courthouse underwent an extensive renovation. The equipment costs about $3,870 for each room, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

Court employees in an audio room tag each recording with the case name, date and time for filing purposes, but they don't listen to it, Capristo said. Tagging the recording makes it easier to find, she said.

“To the best of my knowledge, there have been no complaints,” Capristo said, adding that they might have been more common when the system was first implemented. “It's certainly something for everyone to get used to.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or

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