AUGUSTA — An internal investigation is underway by the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office after a court security officer took a cellphone photo of a defense attorney’s notes and emailed it to the prosecutor’s phone in an unprecedented breach of protocol.
Sgt. Joel Eldridge took the photo Tuesday in a courtroom at the Capital Judicial Center while the attorneys were in chambers with Judge Eric Walker. They were discussing a case involving Carl Langston, 28, of Brunswick, who was accused of robbery, aggravated assault and criminal mischief, as well as violating probation.
On Thursday during the continuation of that hearing, the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Francis Griffin, told Walker that he saw the photo on his phone and reported the incident to District Attorney Maeghan Maloney and then on Wednesday to defense attorney Sherry Tash. Tash told the judge that Griffin called her to report an ethical situation. “He told me he got a photo that Joel Eldridge took of my notes of a person’s name and number,” she said.
“It’s outrageous,” Tash said after the hearing. “He (Eldridge) is one of the people who’s supposed to protect the sanctity of the courtroom, and he goes and does this.”
Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch, said Thursday she had not heard of anything similar happening elsewhere in the state.
“A defense attorney’s notes are never to be viewed by anyone other than the defense attorney and the defendant,” Maloney said. “I have no interest in seeing them. The criminal justice system requires they remain private.”
It’s unclear why Eldridge took the photo and sent it to Griffin, an action that officials said wasn’t a crime but rather a serious ethical breach and violation of courtroom protocol. Maloney said the information received “was not actually anything helpful to the prosecution.”
Eldridge, a 18-year veteran of the criminal justice system, responded Thursday afternoon to a message sent via Facebook, saying, “No comment at this time.”
Court security officers, who wear dark blazers in the courthouse, are sworn deputies. They are armed and carry radios and cellphones as well as other gear. They conduct entry screening, function as bailiffs and jury officers and occasionally arrest people in the courthouse.
At the hearing, Tash told Walker, “I understood also it was a partial copy of my notes.” The information contained a phone number of a private investigator.
Maloney said she had no idea why the photo was taken.
“I am shocked,” she said. “Based on the information I have at this time, a crime has not been committed. The alleged conduct does, however, indicate a serious ethical breach. In a courtroom, it is imperative that everyone be treated fairly and equally.”
Tash also told the judge that Eldridge was one of the officers involved in the criminal mischief charge against Langston. In that case, Langston was accused of chipping paint off a concrete bench with his shackled feet on May 26, 2016, in an inmate holding area in the courthouse. The officer who filed the complaint is listed as Lauren Harney.
Her report indicates that Langston was anxious to be returned to the jail from the courthouse, but was moved around a lower level holding area. According to the report, Eldridge asked him what was happening and then put him in a jail transport van to be driven back to the jail, which is next to the courthouse.
The judge on Thursday told Griffin he appreciated the way the district attorney’s office handled the situation involving the cellphone photo.
“It appears as though court security has taken a real serious hit as far as credibility is concerned,” Walker said from the bench.
He said he didn’t understand why it happened.
“I have no words to describe how I feel about this right now,” Walker added.
The Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for overseeing courthouse security, running the jail, transporting inmates and patrolling. Sheriff Ken Mason said he learned of the situation Wednesday morning.
“I took immediate action notifying my investigator who does internal investigations for personnel matters,” Mason said Thursday. “Early in the afternoon I placed Sgt. Eldridge on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the internal investigation being conducted by Lt. William Johnson.”
Mason said he wanted the probe done completely and appropriately and he set no deadline. He declined to comment further except to say that court security will be maintained.
Maloney said Thursday that nothing like this has happened before, to her knowledge.
“I am proud of the response that everyone has had,” she said. “Every single person has been taking it seriously. I called court security, the judge, and the sheriff. Everyone reacted immediately to get the full information.”
The use of cellphones, pagers and other electronic devices in courtrooms is governed by administrative orders of the court.
Generally, only attorneys and those with the judge’s permission can use electronics when a court is in session.
Eldridge has worked for the county since November 1999, when he started as a corrections officer at the jail, according to Robert Devlin, Kennebec County administrator. The county has a contract with the state court system to provide court security. Four full-time officers, including Eldridge, and a dozen part-time officers work at courts in Augusta and Waterville.
According to the sheriff, the court security officers follow the policies of the judicial marshals in providing for safety and security of court personnel and the public.
Betty Adams — 621-5631