Holbrook v. Flynn

Citation106 S.Ct. 1340,89 L.Ed.2d 525,475 U.S. 560
Decision Date26 March 1986
Docket NumberNo. 84-1606,84-1606
PartiesTerrance HOLBROOK, Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Norfolk, Massachusetts, et al., Petitioners v. Charles FLYNN
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

After respondent and others were indicted for armed robbery in Rhode Island Superior Court, they were held without bail. When the trial was about to begin, four uniformed state troopers were sitting in the front row of the spectators' section of the courtroom to supplement the customary security force, which was overextended at the time. Respondent's counsel objected to the troopers' presence, but this objection was overruled by the trial justice, primarily on the basis of voir dire responses during the selection of the jury indicating that the troopers' presence would not affect the defendants' ability to receive a fair trial. Respondent was convicted, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed. Respondent then brought a habeas corpus proceeding in Federal District Court, which also rejected his objections to the troopers' presence. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial justice had failed to consider whether the particular circumstances of respondent's trial had called for the troopers' presence and that the justice had improperly relied on the jurors' voir dire responses to rebut any suggestion of prejudice to respondent.

Held: The troopers' presence at respondent's trial was not so inherently prejudicial that he was thereby denied his constitutional right to a fair trial. Pp. 567-572.

(a) While an accused is entitled to have his guilt or innocence determined solely on the basis of evidence introduced at trial, this does not mean that every practice tending to single out an accused from everyone else in the courtroom must be struck down. Pp. 567-568.

(b) The conspicuous, or at least noticeable, presence of guards in a courtroom during trial is not the sort of inherently prejudicial practice that should be permitted only where justified by an essential state interest. Such presence need not be interpreted as a sign that the defendant is particularly dangerous or culpable. Jurors may just as easily believe that the guards are there to prevent outside disruptions or eruptions of violence in the courtroom. Reason, principle, and human experience counsel against a presumption that any use of identifiable guards in a courtroom is inherently prejudicial. In view of the variety of ways in which such guards can be deployed, a case-by-case approach is more appropriate. P. 568-569.

(c) Whenever a courtroom arrangement is challenged as inherently prejudicial, the question is not whether the jurors articulated a consciousness of some prejudicial effect, but rather whether there was an unacceptable risk of prejudice. In this case, there is no justification for finding such an unacceptable risk based on the troopers' presence. Even if the jurors had been aware that the deployment of troopers was not common practice, there is no reason to believe that the troopers' presence tended to brand respondent with guilt. Their presence was unlikely to have been taken as a sign of anything other than a normal official concern for safety and order. Moreover, even if a slight degree of prejudice could be attributed to the troopers' presence, sufficient cause for their presence could be found in the State's need to maintain custody over defendants who had been denied bail. The troopers' presence was intimately related to the State's legitimate interest in maintaining such custody and thus did not offend the Equal Protection Clause by arbitrarily discriminating against those unable to post bail or to whom bail has been denied. Pp. 570-572.

(d) Since this case involves a federal court's review of a constitutional challenge to a state-court proceeding, the federal court's task is not to determine whether it might have been feasible for the State to have employed less conspicuous security measures in the courtroom, but only whether what the jurors saw was so inherently prejudicial as to pose an unacceptable threat to the defendants' right to a fair trial. Respondent has failed to show the existence of such inherent prejudice and has not shown actual prejudice. P. 572.

749 F.2d 961 (CA1 1984), reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 572.

Thomas More Dickinson, Providence, R.I., with whom Arlene Violet and John Austin Murphy, Providence, R.I., were on brief, for petitioner.

George Kannar, New York City, for respondent.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether a criminal defendant was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial when, at his trial with five codefendants, the customary courtroom security force was supplemented by four uniformed state troopers sitting in the first row of the spectator's section.


On August 14, 1975, nine masked men entered the Bonded Vault Co. in Providence, Rhode Island, robbed several employees at gunpoint, broke into most of the safe-deposit boxes in the vault, and escaped with approximately $4 million in cash and valuables. In January 1976, respondent and eight others were indicted in Providence County Superior Court for that crime. After a hearing in Superior Court, respondent and five of his alleged accomplices were ordered held without bail in the custody of the Warden of the State's Adult Correctional Institution.1

In April 1976, respondent and his five codefendants were brought to trial in Superior Court before Associate Justice Anthony A. Giannini. Upon entering the courtroom, respondent's counsel noted the presence of four uniformed state troopers, sitting in the first row of the spectators' section; the officers were not far behind, but were separated by the "bar" from, the seats assigned to the defendants for the duration of the trial.2 Counsel immediately complained to the judge that "the defendants would object to uniformed police, uniformed state police, sitting in the court as a display of 'strength' in the presence of the jury." Tr. 48-49. While counsel observed that he would have no objection to the use of any number of plainclothed security personnel, he argued that the presence of uniformed officers would suggest to the jury that defendants were of "bad character." Id., at 48. Justice Giannini replied that the troopers were present because the Committing Squad, which usually supplied courtroom security personnel in such cases, was overextended at that time. Noting that he had not personally requested the assistance of the troopers, the judge agreed to see whether they might be made to wear civilian clothes for their future appearances in the courtroom.

The following week, Justice Giannini announced that he had "received a report that it is not practical, both from an organization point of view and also from a contractual point of view with the union representing the state troopers," for the four troopers to dress in civilian clothes. Id., at 71. In the face of these constraints and in view of the need for adequate security, the justice ruled that the troopers could remain in the courtroom, in full uniform. He noted that because the troopers would be seated behind the bar, defendants would in no way be prejudiced. The next day, denying defendants' motion for reconsideration, Justice Giannini asserted that though he himself had not made the decision to deploy the troopers, he thought defendants "overly sensitive" to the danger of prejudice. Id., at 84. At any rate, the justice went on, an examination of prospective jurors would reveal whether they were likely to draw adverse inference from the troopers' presence, and would thereby guarantee the rights of the defendants. Jury selection began.

In the meantime, respondent sought interlocutory review in the Rhode Island Supreme Court of Justice Giannini's ruling. After initially declining review, the Supreme Court read a transcript of the ruling and granted respondent's peti- tion. Noting that "[t]he presence of armed, uniformed police officers acting as a security force in criminal courtrooms in this jurisdiction is a departure from the practice usually found in the trial courts of this state," the court concluded: "The trial justice may not delegate responsibility that is his to the so-called security committee or its advisors. The presence of the State Police is a decision that must be resolved solely by the trial justice after consideration of all relevant factors." State v. Byrnes, 116 R.I. 925, 927, 357 A.2d 448, 449 (1976).

Upon the State's request, Justice Giannini conducted a hearing at which the first witness was Captain Robert Melucci, the principal officer of the Committing Squad, the group charged with maintaining courtroom security during the trials of defendants in pretrial detention.3 He testified that, because of other commitments in the courthouse, the force of 12 officers available for deployment in the building was insufficient to maintain the preferred ratio of 2 officers to every defendant in this six-defendant trial. Since any ratio approaching one-to-one posed a "security risk," Tr. 120, and he could spare only six officers for respondent's trial, Captain Melucci had contacted the Superior Court's presiding justice and informed him of the need for additional security personnel. As a result, Captain Melucci testified, additional help had been sought from the State Police.

The next witness, Major Lionel Benjamin, Executive Officer of the Rhode Island State Police, explained that any time his force was charged with transporting prisoners from the Adult Correctional Institution to the courthouse and maintaining custody during trial, he was contractually obligated to use officers from the uniformed division. That same contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, according to Major Benjamin, precluded him...

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