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Courthouses must stay open late

What the court held

Case: State v. Vanness, No. 2006AP2535-CR.

Issue: Was a defendant’s right to a public trial violated, when the courthouse was locked at the end of the business day, but the trial continued into the evening?

Holding: Yes. Where the closure lasted for more than an hour of the trial, during which both the defense and rebuttal were presented, the right to a public trial was violated.

Attorneys: For Appellant: Lanning, Chad A., West Bend; For Respondent: Weber, Gregory M., Madison; Naze, Andrew P., Kewaunee

Courts need to be careful when conducting trials after business hours, lest the routine lock-up of the courthouse violate the defendant’s right to a public trial.

A July 3 decision from the court of appeals reversed a defendant’s conviction for that reason, even though no one was actually barred from witnessing the trial.

David L. Vanness was charged and tried at the Kewaunee County Courthouse for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated — fifth offense, and other offenses on Dec. 12, 2005. The State completed its evidence at 4:24 p.m., and pursuant to the county’s policy, the courthouse doors were locked at 4:30 p.m.

Although the doors to the courtroom remained open, the doors of the courthouse were locked during the presentation of Vanness’ entire defense and the State’s rebuttal.

Vanness’ wife left the courthouse temporarily after the State’s evidence, and was unable to return during the State’s rebuttal. She eventually regained entry to the courtroom through the sheriff’s department and informed Vanness’ counsel the courthouse was locked.

Vanness moved for a mistrial, which the court denied. After the jury convicted Vanness on all counts, he moved for a new trial, which was also denied.

According to stipulated facts, the courthouse was closed from about 4:30 p.m. until about 7 p.m. From 4:24 p.m. until 5:04 p.m., the court was in recess. From 5:04 p.m. until 6:15 p.m., the court was in session, and the jury heard Vanness’ defense and the State’s rebuttal. The court was then in recess until the doors to the courthouse were reopened around 7 p.m.

Vanness appealed, and the court of appeals reversed in a decision by Judge R. Thomas Cane.

The court held that the closure of the courthouse during the trial violated Vanness’ right to a public trial.

After delineating the deep roots of the right of public trial, the court surveyed cases from other jurisdictions that divide denial of the right into trivial and nontrivial denials.

In Peterson v. Williams, 85 F.3d 39 (2nd Cir. 1996), the court held a closure trivial where it lasted only 15 minutes, the testimony presented was summarized in open court, and the closure was entirely inadvertent.

In contrast, in Walton v. Briley, 361 F.3d 431 (7th Cir. 2004), the court held that a closure was not trivial where state’s entire case was presented after the courthouse was locked for the day. Also, in U.S. v. Canady, 126 F.3d 352 (2nd Cir. 1997), the court held that closing the court to announce the verdict was not a trivial violation because the verdict is the focal point of a criminal trial.

The court of appeals summarized, “In short, the triviality inquiry goes principally to the length of the closure and what parts of the trial were closed.”

Turning to the merits, the court first rejected the State’s argument, based on U.S. v. Al-Smadi, 15 F.3d 153 (10th Cir. 1994), that, because there was no affirmative act by the court to close its doors, Vanness should not receive a new trial.

The court concluded that it is constitutionally irrelevant whether the closure was intentional or inadvertent, citing Peterson and Walton.

The court also rejected the State’s argument that the trial was not closed, because people could gain entry by contacting the sheriff, as Vanness’ wife did.

The court found that the cases cited by the State for support were both distinguishable: in one, a sign was posted on the courthouse doors stating how to gain entry; in the other, a call button was located at the front door to gain entry.

In Vanness’ case, there was no similar method clearly available for the public to gain entry after the doors were locked.

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Case Analysis

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The court concluded, “Although the courtroom doors remained unlocked, the fact that the doors to the courthouse were locked, without an alternative entry, in effect denied the public access to the trial.”

The court also found that closure during
a short, one-day trial for more than an hour is not trivial, distinguishing Peterson.

Finally, it found the portions of the trial that were closed — the defense and the State’s rebuttal — were critical proceedings, and therefore the closure was not trivial. Accordingly, the court reversed.

Before concluding, the court acknowledged that its holding may burden governments with already limited resources, and that budgetary and security concerns may justify locking courthouse doors.

Nevertheless, the court declared, “Courts will simply have to devise methods which protect the accused’s right to a public trial.”

Click here for Case Analysis.

David Ziemer can be reached by email.

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