People v. Venters

Decision Date10 February 1987
Citation511 N.Y.S.2d 283,124 A.D.2d 57
Parties, 55 USLW 2479, 13 Media L. Rep. 2038 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Christopher VENTERS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew York Supreme Court — Appellate Division

Joel B. Rudin, New York City, for defendant-appellant.

Gregory H. Mansfield, of counsel (Susan Corkery, with him on the brief; Robert M. Morgenthau, New York City), for respondent.


WALLACH, Justice.

On this appeal from his conviction for the crime of robbery in the second degree, defendant has raised a serious constitutional and statutory challenge to the practice, almost universally applied in criminal trials conducted in this state, of automatically closing and locking the courtroom doors during the judge's charge to the jury. 1

Immediately prior to commencement of the court's charge to the jury in this case, defendant requested, on the record, that the courtroom doors remain unlocked. The court summarily denied the application. Defendant contends that this ruling deprived him of his right to a public trial guaranteed under both federal (U.S. Const. Amends. 6 and 14) and state (Civil Rights Law § 12; Judiciary Law § 4) law. We agree, and reverse on the ground that courtroom closure during the charge in a criminal case, however hoary and time honored such a practice may be, does not pass constitutional or statutory muster.

The Sixth Amendment's command that a criminal trial be public "is for the benefit of the accused; that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned, and that the presence of interested spectators may keep his triers keenly alive to a sense of their responsibility and to the importance of their functions ..." (Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368, 380, 99 S.Ct. 2898, 2906, 61 L.Ed.2d 608, quoted in Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46, 104 S.Ct. 2210, 2215, 81 L.Ed.2d 31). While the focus of the discussion in Waller v. Georgia was whether the right to a public trial extended to a pre-trial suppression hearing, the Supreme Court dealt with the issue in more expansive terms: (id. at p. 48, 104 S.Ct. at 2216): "[T]he party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest, the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure." 2

A "presumption of openness" was held to apply to the voir dire phase of trial in Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501, 510, 104 S.Ct. 819, 824, 78 L.Ed.2d 629, which could "be overcome only by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest." We are asked by the People to find such an overriding interest in the need to insure that any possible distraction for the jurors in the course of the charge be averted. In 1982, the Second Circuit adopted that view, describing the kind of complaint lodged by defendant here as "frivolous" (U.S. v. Romano, 684 F.2d 1057, 1065, cert. den. 459 U.S. 1016, 103 S.Ct. 376, 74 L.Ed.2d 509), 3 and it remains a mere mote in the eye of our dissenting colleague. However, less than three years later, in Latzer v. Abrams, 602 F.Supp. 1314, 1322, Judge Glasser pointed out that this aspect of Romano might "deserve reconsideration" by the Second Circuit in light of Waller, supra, and Press-Enterprise, supra. Thus, the authority of Romano on this point is now suspect. As Judge Glasser rhetorically inquired in Latzer (id.): "If, as held in Romano, the avoidance of any jury distraction justified the closure, may the courtroom be locked to assure that a jury is not distracted during the crucial testimony of a principal witness?" It therefore appears extremely doubtful that defendant's right to a completely public trial may hinge on an assessment of just how crucial a given phase of the trial may turn out to be. Obviously, to the trial judge, the charge must occupy a lofty plain where he or she takes the center of the stage. But even if that be so, there are First Amendment considerations (Press-Enterprise v. Superior Court, supra ) which indicate that the charge be as equally accessible to the public as any other phase of a criminal trial. It should be recalled that another purpose of a public trial is "to instill a sense of public trust in our judicial process by preventing the abuses of secret tribunals as exemplified by the Inquisition, Star Chamber and lettre de cachet.... Not only the defendant himself, but also the public at large has a vital stake in the concept of a public trial." (People v. Hinton, 31 N.Y.2d 71, 73, 334 N.Y.S.2d 885, 286 N.E.2d 265). The very importance of the jury charge in the conduct of a criminal case is itself an argument for its immediate accessibility to the public.

New York State decisions have not lagged behind the federal in appreciation of the importance of the right to a public trial. Indeed, in People v. Jones, 47 N.Y.2d 409, 414-15, 418 N.Y.S.2d 359, 391 N.E.2d 1335, cert. den. 444 U.S. 946, 100 S.Ct. 307, 62 L.Ed.2d 315, the Court of Appeals held that unjustified closure is reversible error per se, and the aggrieved defendant has no obligation to demonstrate prejudice (see also, People v. Jelke, 308 N.Y. 56, 123 N.E.2d 769). It is therefore irrelevant that this record is barren of any showing that during the delivery of the charge there were persons outside the courtroom whose attempt at entry was actually frustrated.

Concededly, the right to a fully public trial is not absolute, and must give way to compelling circumstances, such as protection of the life of an undercover narcotics agent or the need to preserve his anonymity in other ongoing investigations (People v. Hinton, supra; People v. Garcia, 51 A.D.2d 329, 331, 381 N.Y.S.2d 271, affd. 41 N.Y.2d 861, 393 N.Y.S.2d 709, 362 N.E.2d 260). But such factors must be clearly established on the record (People v. Jones, supra ), and where inadequately shown this court has not hesitated to vindicate the importance of the public trial right by reversal of the conviction (People v. Castro, 63 A.D.2d 891, 405 N.Y.S.2d 729; People v. Morales, 53 A.D.2d 517, 383 N.Y.S.2d 620; People v. Richards, 48 A.D.2d 792, 369 N.Y.S.2d 162; People v. Tillery, 36 A.D.2d 928, 321 N.Y.S.2d 236). The Fourth Department reached a similar conclusion in People v. Ludolph, 63 A.D.2d 77, 407 N.Y.S.2d 85, where closure was held to be supportable to protect the privacy of two...

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7 cases
  • People v. Colon
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • March 22, 1988
    ...had not been briefed to that panel. 127 A.D.2d 678, 511 N.Y.S.2d 674. Subsequently, the First Department ruled, in People v. Venters, 124 A.D.2d 57, 511 N.Y.S.2d 283, appeal dismissed 70 N.Y.2d 658, 518 N.Y.S.2d 1052, 512 N.E.2d 578, that "courtroom closure during the charge in a criminal c......
  • State v. Bell
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • June 9, 1987
    ...cannot conclude the trial judge's limitation infringed upon appellant's constitutional rights in any manner. Cf., People v. Venters, 124 A.D.2d 57, 511 N.Y.S.2d 283 (1987) (closure of criminal trial during jury charge violated constitution where purported justification--preventing possible ......
  • People v. Ramey
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • July 21, 1992 corrected, the court rejected his contention that he was denied his constitutional right to a public trial. In People v. Venters (1987), 124 A.D.2d 57, 511 N.Y.S.2d 283, the court held that an improper closure had occurred where the courtroom doors were locked during the charge to the Th......
  • People v. Kinard
    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court — Appellate Division
    • May 22, 1987
    ...273; People v. Garcia, 51 A.D.2d 329, 381 N.Y.S.2d 271, affd. 41 N.Y.2d 861, 393 N.Y.S.2d 709, 362 N.E.2d 260; cf. People v. Venters, 124 A.D.2d 57, 511 N.Y.S.2d 283). Motion for writ of coram nobis denied, without ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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