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People v. Nieves, 90 N.Y.2d 426 (July 1, 1997).

COURTROOM CLOSURE -- SIXTH AMENDMENT -- WITNESS PROTECTION

THE COURT HAS THE DISCRETION TO CLOSE THE COURTROOM, BUT THE COURT MUST FIRST BALANCE COMPETING INTERESTS.

[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]

SUMMARY

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

Issue

Whether the record established a substantial possibility that the officer's safety would be jeopardized, justifying the exclusion of the defendant's family members.

Disposition

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.

AUTHORITIES CITED

Cases Cited by the Court

RELATED SOURCES

COMMENTARY

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

Nieves 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.

Unanswered Questions

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).

Prepared By:

  • 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
  • Kelly H. Tsai, '99