New HPD lawyer policy worries some

July 8, 2010 4:26:49 PM PDT
A new policy in the Houston Police Department forbids officers from talking with lawyers for defendants without permission. Some say this is setting a dangerous precedent. Houston police officers typically don't talk to defense attorneys about the cases. Now, they can't even if they wanted to unless they get permission first.

To some, the police chief's policy is troubling, and the fear is it could have serious implications for our judicial system.

"I think by this memo, the chief is actually doing his own people a disservice," said Murray Newman, a Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Newman was so shocked by what he read, he posted Chief Charles McClelland's memo on his blog; an anonymous source sent it to him.

"It looks terrible, and I think it makes police officers look extremely biased," Newman said. "It could make a police officer look biased as if he has an agenda."

In the internal HPD memo dated July 1, McClelland states effectively immediately, officers shall no longer talk to criminal defense attorneys regarding a pending criminal case unless the prosecutor says it's OK.

"You've got to work hard in the criminal justice system to come up with a rule that's basically bad for everyone," said Adam Gershowitz, a University of Houston law professor.

Gershowitz says police chief's new policy could easily make life more difficult for all the players in the criminal justice system.

"It puts the individual police officer in a tough spot about whether they are allowed to talk; it puts the defense lawyer in a tough spot because they are not going to get access to information, and it puts the prosecutor in the worst spot because they have to make the final call as to who gets to talk to who," Gershowitz said.

The concern is it could leave prosecutors wide open to complaints about unethical behavior.

Newman believes both sides benefit when police are allowed to talk to defense attorneys. Shutting that down, he said, not only discredits the officer, it could impact the jury that's hearing a particular criminal case.

"If they are not willing to discuss it with the defense attorney, and they lose even the slightest appearance of neutrality that they might have, and I think it that does them a disservice in front of a jury," Newman said.

We wanted to know why McClelland issued the memo. We called HPD around 10am on Thursday and are still waiting for a response from the chief. We checked with several other law enforcement agencies in our area. We did not come across one with a similar policy.


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