COURTROOM CLOSURE -- SIXTH AMENDMENT -- WITNESS PROTECTION
THE COURT HAS THE DISCRETION TO CLOSE THE COURTROOM, BUT THE COURT MUST
FIRST BALANCE COMPETING INTERESTS.
] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION
| [AUTHORITIES CITED
] | [COMMENTARY
Nieves was arrested for selling heroin to an undercover officer. The trial
court granted the prosecution's request to close the courtroom during the
undercover officer's testimony. Nieves contends that excluding his wife
and children violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
ISSUE & DISPOSITION
Whether the record established a substantial possibility that the officer's
safety would be jeopardized, justifying the exclusion of the defendant's
No. The court must demonstrate and document valid reasons for excluding
the defendant's relatives, where the court is aware of their attendance
or the defendant's desire that they attend.
Cases Cited by the Court
Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1 (1986).
v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984).
re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257 (1948).
Vidal v. Williams, 31 F.3d 67 (2d Cir. 1994).
Ramos, (People v. Ayala, 1997 N.Y. Int. 131 (July 1, 1997)).
Gutierez, 86 N.Y.2d 817 (N.Y. 1995).
Martinez, 82 N.Y.2d 436 (N.Y. 1993).
Kan, 78 N.Y.2d 54 (N.Y. 1991).
People v. Hinton, 31 N.Y.2d 71 (N.Y. 1972).
State of the Law Before People v. Nieves
A defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial may give way to other
rights or interests. However, trial courts have been repeatedly cautioned
to exercise their discretionary powers sparingly and only after balancing
the right to a public trial with the protection of witnesses. Waller
v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 45 (1986)
Trial courts must apply a four-part test before a courtroom may be closed.
The party seeking closure must (1) advance an overriding interest that
is likely to be prejudiced, (2) closure must be no broader than necessary
to protect that interest, (3) the trial court must consider reasonable
alternatives to closing the courtroom, and (4) it must make findings adequate
to support the closure. Waller, 467 U.S. at 48; People
v. Martinez, 82 N.Y.2d 436, 442 (N.Y. 1993).
A trial court is not obligated to ask a defendant to identify any family
members who would like to attend the trial before closing the courtroom.
Martinez, 82 N.Y.2d at 444. When a trial court is aware of defendant's
family members in attendance at the trial, or the defendant expresses a
desire to have them present, the exclusion of those individuals must be
necessary to protect the state's interest and the court's reasons for exclusion
must be "demonstrated and documented" in the record. See
People v. Kan, 78 N.Y.2d 54 (N.Y. 1991).
Effect of Nieves on Current Law
does not change the substantial probability test used in
closure cases where the safety of a witness is jeopardized by his testimony.
Instead, it applies the test to the specific facts of the case.
The Court does not define "overriding interest." If the record were complete
and detailed the officer's fear of testifying in front of Nieves' family,
the proximity of the officer's regular patrol to the defendant's home,
the reluctance of the defendant's wife to follow judicial orders, and specific
information about the children, it is still unclear whether the balancing
test would be satisfied.
Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions
All jurisdictions are bound by the Waller
test with regard to courtroom
closure issues. In People
v. Revelo, 676 N.E.2d 263 (Ill. App. 1996)
, the Illinois Court
of Appeals held that a defendant's immediate family members were improperly
excluded from the courtroom during the victim's testimony. See also
Pritchett v. State
, 566 So. 2d 6 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1990) (state
statute requiring trial court to clear its courtroom when person under
the age of 16 is testifying about a sex offense abridged the defendant's
right to a public trial, where the court failed to make any finding to
justify the closure); Boston Herald v. Superior Court
, 658 N.E.2d
152 (Mass. 1995) (media's claim of access to a courtroom derives entirely
from the public's right of access; however the court recognized that the
right of free access may be abridged where Waller
is met). But
see People v. Woodward
, 841 P.2d 954 (Cal. 1992) (defendant's right
to a public trial was not abridged when the trial court closed its courtroom
during the prosecutor's closing statement).
Regina Cheung, '99
Kevin D. DeBorde, '99
Jeff L. Hogue, '99
Denise A. Johnson, '98
Rafael E. Morell, '98
Daniel J. O'Rielly, '98
Joymarie Torres, '98
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