USA V. JAMES ALLEN, II, No. 21-10060 (9th Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
In July 2020, during the heart of the COVID pandemic, Defendant was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. Defendant's case went to trial no long after his arrest, when the district court's COVID procedures were still in effect. More specifically, the Northern District of California imposed a restriction stating only "persons who have been authorized by a judge or the Clerk of Court may enter courthouse property." However, the district court judge overseeing Defendant's motion to suppress and trial imposed additional restrictions, disallowing any member of the public from entering the courtroom and instead streamed live audio over the internet. Defendant objected, citing a violation of his right to a public trial. The district court rejected Defendant's challenge, and a jury convicted him.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit vacated Defendant's conviction and reversed the district court's denial of his motion to suppress, holding that the district court’s COVID protocols violated Defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The court found that the government presented an overriding interest in limiting the transmission of COVID while holding a criminal trial; however, the court's restriction on video access was not narrowly tailored. The Ninth Circuit noted that other courts around the county were able to allow for video access during the pandemic.
Court Description: Criminal Law. The panel vacated James Allen’s conviction and the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress, and remanded for a new suppression hearing and a new trial, in a case in which the district court, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, prohibited members of the public from attending Allen’s suppression hearing and trial and rejected his request for video-streaming of the proceedings. The panel held that the district court’s COVID protocols violated Allen’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The panel explained that the “public trial” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment is impaired by a rule that precludes the public from observing a trial in person, regardless whether the public has access to a transcript or audio stream. Although the district court treated its decision to allow only audio access to the trial as a partial closure, the panel concluded that the court’s order effected a total closure because all persons other than witnesses, court personnel, the parties and their lawyers were excluded from attending the suppression hearing or trial. In order to determine whether the court’s order violated Allen’s public trial right, the panel therefore needed to determine whether there was an overriding interest that made the closure essential, and whether the court UNITED STATES V. ALLEN 3 considered reasonable alternatives to ensure that the closure order was narrowly tailored. Given the impact of the COVID pandemic on Northern California at the time the court was attempting to schedule Allen’s trial, the panel agreed that the goal of limiting the transmission of COVID while holding a trial was an overriding interest. The panel concluded that the district court’s complete prohibition on the public’s visual access was not, however, narrowly tailored. Noting that courts throughout the country, facing the same need to balance public health issues against a defendant’s public trial right, consistently developed COVID protocols that allowed some sort of visual access to trial proceedings, the panel wrote that the district court cannot show that allowing a limited number of members of the public to view the trial in the courtroom, or via a live-streamed video in a different room, would imperil public health. The panel emphasized that an order prohibiting the public’s visual access to a trial or suppression hearing will not always violate the defendant’s public trial right, as certain interests (such as national security) may be so compelling that prohibiting the public’s observation of some or all of the proceedings may be warranted. The panel wrote that the only remedy appropriate to the violation is a new suppression hearing and a new trial. The panel addressed in a contemporaneously filed memorandum disposition Allen’s challenge to the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss the indictment under the Speedy Trial Act. 4 UNITED STATES V. ALLEN