Partial Courtroom Closure During Closing Argument Did Not Violate The Sixth Amendment Right To A Public Trial

Eleventh Circuit concludes that a partial courtroom closure during parties' final argument presentation did not violate the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial; circuit concluded that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial applied to closing arguments, but that a limited closure was justified when sufficient safeguards were taken, in United States v. Flanders, _ F.3d _ (11th Cir. May 27, 2014) (Nos. 12–10995, 12–15027, 12–15248)

In criminal cases, the Sixth Amendment provides "the accused" with "the right to a ... public trial." The violation of the constitutional right to a public trial is one of those few errors that may result in structural (not harmless) error, resulting in automatic reversal. See, e.g., Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 8 (1999) (listing the right to a public trial among a “very limited class of cases” in which structural error results) (citation omitted). A recent case from the Eleventh Circuit confronted a claim that the partial closure during the closing arguments violated the public right to trial.

Trial Court Proceedings: Closing Arguments

In the case, defendant Flanders was charged with conspiracy to induce “women to engage in sex trafficking through fraud” and related offenses. One issue that arose concerned the closure of the courtroom. As summarized in the opinion:

The record establishes the following facts: (1) the courtroom was nearly full, and several of Defendants’ family and friends were present during closing arguments; (2) only those people who arrived past 9:05 a.m. were denied access; (3) neither side objected when the court proposed locking the doors; (4) when defense counsel expressed concern after closing arguments that some of Defendants’ family had been locked out of the courtroom, the court offered counsel the opportunity to redeliver their closing arguments with the doors unlocked, but both sides declined; (5) before the verdicts were announced, defense counsel moved for a mistrial on Sixth Amendment grounds, but the court denied the motion, finding no contemporaneous objection; and (6) defense counsel later moved for a new trial on the same grounds, but the district court again denied the motion, explaining in a written order that it had locked the doors once closing arguments had begun in order to limit distractions to the jury that could have inhibited their ability to perform their function.

Flanders, _ F.3d at _. The trial court denied the defense motion for a new trial. First, the trial court held "that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extends to the parties' closing arguments in a criminal trial properly brought before a jury, or in the case of a bench trial, a judge." See United States v. Flanders, 845 F. Supp. 2d 1298, 1301 (S.D. Fla. 2012). Second, the trial court concluded that the closure could be a partial one:

In the instant case, it is clear that only a partial closure took place. The doors to the courtroom were locked immediately prior to the parties' closing arguments, but members of the public were permitted access at all times prior to the commencement of the parties' closing arguments, and most of the defendants' friends and family were in the courtroom and able to observe closing arguments.

Flanders, 845 F. Supp. 2d at 1302. Finally, the trial court concluded that the Sixth Amendment was not violated:

Here, the Defendants received every safeguard provided by the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The courtroom was open to the public at every stage of the proceeding except for the time during which the parties gave their closing arguments to the jury. At the time of the partial closure, the courtroom was nearly full, and there were not enough empty seats in the courtroom to accommodate all of the people who were locked outside of the courtroom. Finally, each of the Defendants had friends and family in the courtroom that witnessed the parties' closing arguments.
. . .
Finally, there is no question that this Court was justified in limiting the ability of the public to disturb the jury and counsel at such an important part of the proceedings. Closing arguments are intended as a last opportunity for the parties to impress upon the jury a specific view of the evidence and to influence the jury to return with a favorable verdict. Allowing members of the public to freely come and go during the parties' closing arguments would have distracted members of the jury and inhibited their ability to perform their important function.

Flanders, 845 F. Supp. 2d at 1302-03. On appeal, the defendant claimed his constitutional rights were violated "when the court ordered the courtroom doors locked during closing arguments." Flanders, _ F.3d at _.

Eleventh Circuit Review: Summary Analysis

The Eleventh Circuit concluded that there was no violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The circuit approved of the analysis by the trial court. Consequently, the circuit's analysis was concise: "we readily conclude that the Defendants' right to a public trial was not violated by the partial closure of the courtroom." Flanders, _ F.3d at _ (citing Aaron v. Capps, 507 F.2d 685, 687-88 (5th Cir. 1975) (finding no constitutional violation caused by partial closure of criminal trial where some members of the public, including the news media and defendant's relatives and clergyman, were admitted; the courtroom was at least three-fourths full; and the transcript of the trial became public record)).

Conclusion

The Flanders case demonstrates the analysis that the trial court should make in addressing the issue of partial closure of trial. For other cases addressing this issue, consider:

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Photo Description: The Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Southern District of Florida, Miami, Florida, where the trial took place. Learn more about the SDFL Courthouse.

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