Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Courtroom closure during criminal trial was legal

Habeas corpus petitions are routinely denied by the federal courts because Congress in 1996 told them to defer to the constitutional judgments reached by the state appellate courts. This means the New York Appellate Divisions and the State Court of Appeals can get it wrong, but unless they get it unreasonably wrong, the conviction stands and the defendant remains in jail.

The case is Moss v. Colvin, issued on January 9. There are many ways to upset a criminal conviction. One way is to argue that that the trial court closed the courtroom during the criminal trial without a good reason. That's what Moss argues here. He was arrested for selling drugs. An undercover officer nailed him. Of course, undercover had to testify in court against Moss. But since undercover witnesses cannot show their faces, trial judges sometimes close the courtroom during their testimony. Since the State Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, the Second Circuit is his last resort.

Here is the test for determining whether the criminal court violated the Constitution in closing the courtroom:

(1) “the party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced” if the courtroom is not closed, (2) “the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest,” (3) “the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding,” and (4) the trial court “must make findings adequate to support the closure.”

The Second Circuit (Katzmann, Carney and Wesley) says the state courts got it right in finding the government had an excellent reason for closing the courtroom. The undercover officer continued to work in the area of the arrest (so that people attending the trial would know who he was), he had received numerous threats in the past, and he had encountered suspects in the courthouse. He also took steps to protect his identity when he entered courthouses. In finding the courtroom closure did not violate the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, the New York Court of Appeals did not unreasonably apply the Constitution,

No comments: