Are Prison Tapes Admissible at Trial?
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Byrd. In Byrd, the Superior Court re-affirmed the long-standing rule that prison tapes and recorded prison visits may be used against a defendant at trial. This means that if a defendant says something incriminating in a recorded phone call, that incriminating statement can be used against the defendant as a confession as long as the defendant was on notice that the call could be recorded.
The Facts of Byrd
Byrd involved gun charges and Possession With the Intent to Deliver charges. Police officers testified at a motion to suppress that they received a phone call for a specific address in McKeesport, PA that a female received threatening phone calls from a suspect who was parked outside of her residence in a grey, F-150 truck. Police arrived at the house, spoke with the woman who had called 911, and learned that a man known to her as “Reek” had threatened to kill her, had a gun, and was parked outside the house in the truck. She pointed at the grey truck.
The officer then went to confront the man in the truck, who turned out to be the defendant. The officer attempted to stop the defendant, and the defendant rolled the window down 2-3 inches. The officer could immediately smell a strong odor of marijuana through the window. The officer also testified that the defendant was acting in a nervous manner, his hands were shaking, and he was breathing rapidly. The officer called for back-up.
When back-up arrived, the officer ordered the defendant to get out of the truck. The defendant refused, so officers pulled him out. The defendant resisted, pulled away, and eventually began to run. Officers caught him. After placing him into custody, they returned to the truck and looked in the window. They observed a gun magazine under a piece of cloth on the front seat of the truck. They then searched the car. When an officer lifted the cloth, he found a .40 caliber handgun. Police also found other drugs and drug paraphernalia in the car which suggested that the defendant may have been likely to sell those drugs.
After police arrested the defendant, he made a number of incriminating statements in recorded inmate visits while awaiting trial in custody at the Allegheny County jail.
The Motion to Suppress
Prosecutors charged the defendant with persons not to possess firearms, carrying a firearm without a license, three counts of possession with the intent to deliver, and three counts of possession with a controlled substance. The defendant moved to suppress the gun and drugs. He also subsequently moved to suppress statements recorded at the Allegheny County jail after prosecutors notified his attorney that they planned to use the recordings at trial. Prison authorities had recorded conversations in which the defendant made incriminating statements to visitors while in custody. Thus, he moved to suppress the statements, arguing that the prison violated Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act when it made the recordings. The trial court granted the motion with respect to the priosn tapes and some of the drugs.
The Criminal Appeal
The Commonwealth appealed the trial court's order. The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision to suppress both the physical evidence and the recorded statements. With respect to the physical evidence, the Court concluded that because officers had smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle and because the defendant seemed nervous and resisted arrest, the officers had probable cause to search the entire vehicle for contraband pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Gary. As a general rule, police do not need a search warrant for a car because cars may be easily moved. Instead, police must establish at a suppression hearing only that they had probable cause to search a vehicle. The odor of marijuana, coupled with the defendant’s behavior, gave the officers the probable cause necessary to search the car.
The Admissibility of Prison Phone Calls in Pennsylvania
The Superior Court also found that the prison phone calls were admissible in evidence against the defendant. The Court noted that Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act makes Pennsylvania a two-party consent state. This means that a person may not make secret audio recordings of another person in Pennsylvania. It can actually be a felony to do so, and a violation of the Act typically leads to the suppression of the evidence. Under the Wiretap Act, both parties to a call must consent to its recording, or they must at least be on notice of a potential recording and implicitly consent to the recording by continuing to make a call, anyway.
Although the trial court reasoned that the defendant had not been sufficiently warned that the phone calls would be recorded, the Superior Court rejected this analysis. The testimony at the motions hearing was that inmate visitation at the Allegheny County Jail is conducted over a closed-circuit system using telephone receivers. Guards take a visitor to the jail to a windowed cubicle with chairs and a telephone receiver. The inmate is escorted to a room on the other side of the visitor window with another telephone receiver. The inmate picks up the receiver, enters his or her jail ID number, and then the visitor picks up the receiver. Before the parties speak through the phone, a recording stating that the visit “may be monitored or recorded” is played. However, there is nothing in the inmate handbook which indicates that the visits are recorded and there was no testimony regarding whether [Byrd] heard the recording before each visit. The Commonwealth called the defendant’s visitor, however, to testify that she did hear the warning before the conversations. Additionally, in some of the phone calls, the defendant attempted to whisper and suggested that he did not care if he was being recorded, suggesting that in addition to hearing the warning, he did know that he was being recorded.
Prison Tapes Are Admissible
The Superior Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence did not establish that he actually heard the warning or that the warning that he “may be” recorded instead of “would be” recorded somehow rendered the recording illegal. The Court concluded that the defendant was properly warned that he could be recorded, knew that he was being recorded based on the things that he said, and that he implicitly consented to the recordings by continuing with the visits, anyway. Thus, the Court found that the evidence was not obtained in violation of the Wiretap Act and could be used at trial.
The bottom line is that prison phone calls, and in many cases in-person prison visits, are recorded. This is particularly true in Philadelphia where all prison phone calls are recorded and a warning is played before each call. As long as the prison provides some sort of notice that the phone calls could be recorded, those conversations are admissible in evidence against a criminal defendant if the defendant says something incriminating. They are often even more damaging to a case than a detective or police officer claiming that a defendant confessed because in many cases, the jury will actually be able to listen to the recordings. Many prosecutors throughout the Commonwealth will listen to these recordings prior to trial and see if the defendant confessed at any point during a visit or phone call, and if the defendant did, it could seriously undermine the defense at trial. There is very little that can be done to mitigate the potential damage caused by incriminating statements once they are made. Even statements which seem harmless can often be used against a defendant if the prosecutor can suggest that the defendant was speaking in code or that the statement meant something else. The Superior Court’s opinion re-affirms that prison inmates have very few privacy rights, and if they make recorded phone calls, law enforcement may listen in and use those phone calls at trial.
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