Deciding body (English)
Type of body
Type of Court (material scope)
Type of jurisdiction
Type of Court (territorial scope)
Outcome of the decision
The Defendant in a criminal procedure argued that his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial had been violated. After his arrest, the Judge, considering the Covid-19 pandemic, prohibited members of the public from attending his suppression hearing and trial and rejected his request to video-stream the proceedings. The District Court ruled in favor of the Defendant and the prosecution appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court analyzed the arguments of both parties and concluded that the District Court’s complete prohibition of visual access to the public was not narrowly tailored, and that other Courts throughout the country, facing the same need to balance public health issues with a defendant’s right to a public trial, consistently developed protocols that allowed some sort of visual access to trial proceedings. Therefore, the panel vacated the Defendant’s conviction and the District Court’s denial of his motion to suppress, and remanded a new suppression hearing and trial.
Facts of the case
In July 2020, police officers were dispatched to a residential street in a city in California where they found the defendant sitting in a stolen vehicle. An inventory search uncovered a loaded AR-15 style rifle. The officers arrested the defendant, who was subsequently indicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. The District Court’s effort to schedule the defendant’s trial was hampered by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Beginning in March 2020 and continuing through all periods relevant to this appeal, the pandemic shut down much of California: the governor declared a state of emergency in March 2020, issued a stay-at-home order for non-essential workers, and closed most non-essential businesses. Notwithstanding these general orders, the judge presiding over the defendant’s proceedings adopted additional restrictions. The Court’s protocol for the defendant’s pretrial hearings and trial precluded members of the public from entering the courtroom, and gave them access to the proceedings only via streaming audio over the internet. The defendant objected to this protocol as being in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
Type of measure challenged
Measures, actions, remedies claimed
- Interim relief
- Annulment and new trial
Individual / collective enforcement
Nature of the parties
Type of procedure
Reasoning of the deciding body
The Court analyzed the arguments of the parties and reasoned that:
- Regarding the right to a public trial, the scope of the public trial right must be understood in light of its purposes. The public trial guarantee was a right created for the benefit of the defendant. There is also a societal interest in public observation of trial proceedings because such observation gives assurance to those not attending trials that others were able to observe the proceedings and enhanced public confidence. The Court pointed out that, because of the importance of public observation of court proceedings, transcripts of a trial are not an adequate substitute for access to the courtroom to observe the trial. For the purposes of the right to a public trial, an audio stream is not substantially different from a public transcript.
- Regarding the decision to impose closure of the trial, the Court reasoned that, before ordering a total closure, the Court must determine that there was an overriding interest based on findings that a closure was essential to preserve higher values. The District Court characterized its overriding interest as “keeping people safe and limiting the spread of the virus.” In light of the availability of these alternatives, the District Court could justify its more restrictive order only if it had some unique reason it could not use video-streaming or other alternatives, as other Courts were doing. According to the panel, the Court did not articulate such unique reasons.
- Finally, the Court argued that the District Court’s complete prohibition of visual access by the public was not narrowly tailored. It reasoned that Courts throughout the country, facing the same need to balance public health issues against a defendant’s right to a public trial, consistently developed Covid-19 protocols that allowed some sort of visual access to trial proceedings. Furthermore, the Court emphasized that the District Court did not show that allowing a limited number of members of the public to view the trial in the courtroom, or via a live-streamed video in a different room, would imperil public health.
Conclusions of the deciding body
The Court concluded that the District Court’s Covid-19 protocols violated the Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. It thus granted relief and determined a new suppression hearing and trial.
Fundamental Right(s) involved
Fundamental Right(s) instruments (constitutional provisions, international conventions and treaties)
Rights and freedoms specifically identified as (possibly) conflicting with the right to health
Balancing techniques and principles (proportionality, reasonableness, others)
The Court used balancing techniques when confronting the right to health, represented by the pandemic restrictions, and the right to a public trial. The Court also mentioned the “narrowly tailored decision” as a point of balance between both rights, concluding that the decision made by the District Court was not narrowly tailored and therefore should be voided.
On the general principles applied: The Court mentioned the principle of a public trial.