Attorney Sage Kaveny had made at least 30 visits to county jail clients when she went to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center to talk to a man accused of domestic violence.
For more than 90 minutes, she sat on a hard metal stool conversing through a steel mesh barrier as her client read legal papers. Then, she says, she briefly got up to stretch.
That movement momentarily removed her from view of the overhead security camera. And it ignited a legal battle between Kaveny and the Sheriff’s Department that on Tuesday resulted in her filing a federal civil rights lawsuit, arguing she was prevented from performing her duties as a lawyer simply because she is a woman.
Within minutes of her standing up that evening in November 2014, guards hustled her client away to be strip-searched and accused her of removing her pants and boots and engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct, court documents say.
The Sheriff’s Department subsequently restricted her from visiting clients at the jails – even after a judge intervened and said there were no grounds to think she had behaved inappropriately.
Kaveny claims she is a victim of sexual harassment and a good-old-boys culture at Sacramento County’s two jails. She did not, she said, remove any of her clothing.
“I mean, it was so unbelievably ridiculous, I thought it was a prank,” Kaveny said in an interview last week. “I was asking the guards, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Kaveny said she was barred from meeting with at least six other clients in attorney-inmate rooms for six months after the incident, and was subjected to gossip and emails circulated among sheriff’s deputies that undermined her ability to do her job.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the Rio Cosumnes jail in Elk Grove and the Main Jail downtown, declined to comment on the lawsuit or her allegations.
I mean, it was so unbelievably ridiculous I thought it was a prank
But Sheriff’s Department reports and declarations filed in court show officials were purportedly concerned about Kaveny and the potential for her to “compromise the safety and security of the jails.”
“Specifically, I am concerned about the introduction of unauthorized drugs, controlled substances and contrabands, prevention of escape, assault and hostage taking,” jail Capt. Thomas Andris wrote in a May 2015 declaration.
Officials monitor various portions of the jails to maintain security, and have had at least one prior instance where an attorney was found to have developed a relationship with an inmate. That incident came in 2001, when a Sacramento County public defender and a murder suspect began a romantic relationship.
The attorney later left the Public Defender’s Office. The relationship became part of protracted legal action by the inmate, who was convicted and sentenced to life.
Kaveny, 37, says the notion that she had any nonprofessional relationship with her client, whom she had never met before taking his case, is absurd.
Her problems with the jail apparently stemmed from the fact that when she got up from the stool, she disappeared from the view of the overhead security camera that records video – but not sound – of attorney-client visits.
“Apparently, for defendants, if a female attorney is off-camera, they must be engaging in sexual misconduct,” states her lawsuit, filed by Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz.
Anthony BlackOwl, the inmate Kaveny was meeting with at the jail, said in a separate interview that he was reading legal papers when deputies burst in, and that nothing inappropriate was taking place.
“She’s just stretching,” said BlackOwl, 33. “That’s all she really was doing.
“I don’t know where the accusations came from. I was going through everything, we were preparing for trial.”
BlackOwl, whose prosecution was stalled for nine months as a result of the department’s accusations, said that after he was pulled from the cell, he was strip-searched and checked for contraband – which they did not find. He had his “houseman,” or trusty, status revoked, and he was moved to a maximum security cell at the Main Jail.
He claimed that Deputy Douglas Davis, who is named along with five other sheriff’s officials in the lawsuit, destroyed some of his personal property, including legal files related to his defense, and searched his other confidential legal materials.
“I was taunted by officers afterwards,” BlackOwl said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re the inmate where your attorney revealed herself to you. What was it like when she took her pants down for you?’ ”
BlackOwl filed a complaint with the department, which Lt. Mike Butler dismissed less than three weeks later in a letter in which he wrote that the deputies’ actions “were appropriate given the circumstances.”
“I found no evidence of any law, policy or privilege infringed on,” Butler wrote to BlackOwl.
Kaveny claims actions by jail officials to restrict her access affected her ability to represent her clients, including BlackOwl, who ended up spending three years in jail before he went to trial and was acquitted of all the charges he faced.
That acquittal came only after Kaveny and attorney Adam Weiner, who was BlackOwl’s original attorney and brought in Kaveny to help with the case, filed a motion in the BlackOwl case complaining about the restrictions that had been placed upon her at the jails.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jaime Román responded with a Jan. 30, 2015, finding that Kaveny was “the unfortunate subject of rash and inappropriate treatment by overly zealous correctional officers.”
“She deserved better treatment,” the judge declared. “And so did her client.”
Román then ordered the Sheriff’s Department to provide Kaveny “access to Mr. BlackOwl in a manner consistent with privileges attendant to attorney visits forthwith.”
Court documents say Kaveny took the judge’s order directly to the Main Jail and asked a deputy at the visitor’s booth to update the department computers to reflect the order. Then, she was allowed to meet with BlackOwl in a regular attorney-client booth.
A month later, on Feb. 26, 2015, Kaveny filed a claim against the county alleging sexual harassment, infliction of emotional distress, slander and libel.
One day after that claim was filed, court documents say, Kaveny received an email from a deputy informing her that her privileges to visit clients in confidential attorney-client booths were restricted “for the foreseeable future.”
In the following weeks, Kaveny claims in court documents, her visits to clients were restricted or interrupted by deputies. When she reminded deputies of the judge’s order, she was told that Andris, the jail captain, had issued his own order “superseding” the judge’s, court documents say.
That led Kaveny back to Judge Román, who issued another order again restoring her rights, and then on to an administrative hearing. By July, Kaveny’s attorney visitation rights were back in place.
The only explanation offered in documents about why Kaveny might have fallen under suspicion at the Sacramento jail came from her visits to the El Dorado County jail starting in September 2012, when she was working as a legal intern. Court documents say Kaveny met repeatedly with suspected con man Troy Stratos, who was found guilty last May by a federal jury of an $11 million fraud involving Facebook stock.
Kaveny billed Stratos for more than 1,000 hours of legal work, court documents say, but her visits to him, which typically came at night because, she said, she was working a day job, began to generate gossip in the jail. Kaveny acknowledges that during her visits she brought some items Stratos had requested – hypoallergenic deodorant, DVDs and a CD player, and running shoes with insoles, but said in court papers that all of them were delivered to a deputy to decide whether Stratos could receive them.
Court papers say she also ordered four bags of Ghiradelli chocolate chips – worth $27.95 – delivered to the jail kitchen where Stratos worked. They were intended for use in the annual county fair baking contest, in which inmates compete.
(A July 2013 Sacramento Bee story noted that the inmates won 31 ribbons in the contest that year.)
Apparently this became too much for El Dorado County sheriff’s officials, who alleged Kaveny was engaged in a “romantic relationship” with Stratos, “who admittedly and openly prefers same-sex relationships,” court documents say.
El Dorado County sheriff’s officials alleged in an email that Kaveny had ordered a “full pallet” of chocolates that was stopped, court documents say.
Kaveny denies that, but the email was forwarded to Sacramento County sheriff’s officials because Stratos, a federal prisoner, was transferred to the Sacramento County jail.
Kaveny said in the interview with The Sacramento Bee that she found the transfer ironic because, at the time, she was living in Sacramento and the move brought the inmate closer to her. Kaveny said that, since the allegations began, she has felt “like I was in high school and the football team had just started a rumor about me.”
“I’ve had to litigate this in front of other attorneys, judges I have other cases in front of,” Kaveny said. “It’s totally humiliating.”