New York Appellate Lawyer

48 Wall Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10005

Federal Criminal Appeals Throughout The United States and
New York State Criminal Appeals.

Located at 48 Wall Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY! 1-800-APPEALS (277-3257)

Hinton Hearings: Criteria Of Closing A Courtroom During Trial


sixth amendment standard of review closed testimony appeals

People v. Echevarria

2013 NY Slip Op 03019 21 NY3d 1

New York Court Of Appeals

Decided on: April 30, 2013

 Protection of Identity Of Undercover Officers Held To Be Valid For Closing The Courtroom

Summary: Defendants Echevarria, Moss and Johnson were all charged in three separate criminal cases with criminal possession of a controlled substance for selling bags of crack cocaine to an undercover officer. In each case, the trial courts held a pretrial Hinton hearing pursuant to People v. Hinton 31 NY2d 71 1972, to determine whether public access should be restricted during the testimony of the undercover officers. Each of the three trial courts concluded that the courtrooms should be closed to the general public during the testimony of the undercover officers and that open court testimony would jeopardize their safety and ongoing investigations.

The trial courts reasoned that they would separately consider opening the proceedings to each Defendant’s family members should they wish to attend. In each case the Defendants argued on appeal that their Constitutional right to a public trial was violated. The Appellate Division affirmed the convictions and the Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal.

All three Defendants maintain that they are entitled to a new trial because they were deprived of their Constitutional right to a public trial due to the exclusion of the general public during the testimony of the undercover officers. The New York Court Of Appeals held that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a courtroom closure must satisfy a four-part standard to comport with the requirements of the Sixth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals held that the proponent of closure must demonstrate a substantial probability that the identified interest will be prejudiced by an open courtroom. If a trial court fails to adhere to this procedure, any closure is unjustified and will require reversal. Accordingly, in Echevarria, the order of the Appellate Division was reversed and a new trial ordered; in Moss and Johnson, the orders of the Appellate Division were affirmed.

See Also: The Fundamental Right To A Fair Trial And The Prosecution’s Closing Argument

Issue: Whether a Defendant’s Sixth Amendment Constitutional right to a public trial was violated when the Judge failed to consider a reasonableness alternative to closure.

Holding: The New York Court Of Appeals relied on U.S. Supreme Court holding where it was explained that a courtroom closure must satisfy a four-part standard to comport with the requirements of the Sixth Amendment:

1) The party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced; 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) it must make findings adequate to support the closure. Waller v. Georgia, 467 US 39, 48 1984. In Echevarria, the trial court limited its charge to two of the factors found in the CJI, both of which were unfavorable to support closure. In Moss, the people had sufficiently demonstrated that open court testimony would jeopardize their safety. In Johnson, the People responded that there was no lesser option than to closure to protect the officer’s safety.In Echevarria, the order of the Appellate Division was reversed and a new trial ordered; in Moss and Johnson, the orders of the Appellate Division were affirmed.

Facts: Defendant Alex Echevarria was charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance in or near school grounds for selling three bags of crack cocaine to an undercover officer. The court held a pretrial hearing pursuant to People v. Hinton 31 NY2d 71 1972, to determine whether public access should be restricted during the testimony of the two undercover officers. Over Defendant objection, the court concluded that the courtroom should be closed to the general public during the testimony of both officers and that open court testimony would jeopardize their safety and ongoing investigations.

Defendant took the stand and testified that he was a drug addict who agreed to procure the drugs for the undercover officer because the officer told him that he could keep one bag of crack cocaine. The court gave the jury a charge on the agency doctrine. Defendant was convicted and subsequently sentenced to two concurrent terms of 10 years followed by three years of post release supervision. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal and held that the trial court made no adequate findings to support the closure of the courtroom. The Court of Appeals held that the proponent of closure must demonstrate a substantial probability that the identified interest will be prejudiced by an open courtroom. If a trial court fails to adhere to this procedure, any closure is unjustified and will require reversal. Accordingly, The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division and ordered a new trial.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that, although a criminal Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to an open trial is fundamental, it is not absolute. Rather, trial Judges have inherent discretionary power to exclude members of the public from the courtroom. As a result, the right to a public trial may yield to other rights or interests in rare circumstances only, and the balance of interests must be struck with special care. The Court of Appeals held that the trial courts are to consider alternatives to closing the courtroom; even when the parties do not suggest them.

The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that a courtroom closure must satisfy a four-part standard to comport with the requirements of the Sixth Amendment:

1) the party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced; 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) it must make findings adequate to support the closure.’ Waller v. Georgia, 467 US 39, 48 1984.

In each case, the trial courts concluded that the courtrooms should be closed to the general public during the testimony of the undercover officers. The courts reasoned that the officers had made a particularized showing that open court testimony would jeopardize their safety and ongoing investigations. The courts noted that it would separately consider opening the proceedings to Defendants family members if they wished to attend.

The Court Of Appeals affirmed Moss and Johnson and reversed Echevarria. The Court of Appeals held that open court testimony would jeopardize the undercover officers’ safety and ordering the courtrooms closed only for the duration of the officer’s testimony could cure this. Moreover, those portions were only partially closed because the trial courts in those cases made an exception for Defendants’ family members to attend. Similarly, at the Echevarria trial, the court stated that it would separately consider opening the closed portion of the proceedings to family members. In sum, The Court of Appeals concluded that the Defendants were not deprived of their Sixth Amendment rights to a public trial.

The Court of Appeals held that The U.S. Supreme Court has made plain that the proponent of closure must demonstrate a substantial probability that they will be prejudiced by an open courtroom. With respect to the requirement that reasonable alternatives to closure are to be considered, the trial courts orders denying access to voir dire testimony failed to consider whether alternatives were available absent consideration of alternatives to closure.

The Court of Appeals affirmed The Appellate Division in Moss and Johnson, and reversed Echevarria because the undercover officers might have been able to safely testify with a disguise or behind a partition, or an officer stationed outside the courtroom might have screened individuals and excluded only those individuals who live in the vicinity of the arrest. In the particular buy-and-bust case, a CJI charge specifies that the nature and extent of a relationship is but one factor for a jury to consider in accessing an agency defense. Hence, the imbalanced charge did not convey the proper analytical framework and was therefore error. The Court concluded that Echevarria is entitled to a new trial.


Related Articles