Courthouses must stay open when conducting trials after business hours, rules Wis. Court of Appeals.

AuthorZiemer, David

Byline: David Ziemer

Courts need to be careful when conducting trials after business hours, lest the routine lock-up of the courthouse violate the defendant's right to a public trial. A July 3 decision from the court of appeals reversed a defendant's conviction for that reason, even though no one was actually barred from witnessing the trial. David L. Vanness was charged and tried at the Kewaunee County Courthouse for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated -- fifth offense, and other offenses on Dec. 12, 2005. The State completed its evidence at 4:24 p.m., and pursuant to the county's policy, the courthouse doors were locked at 4:30 p.m. Although the doors to the courtroom remained open, the doors of the courthouse were locked during the presentation of Vanness' entire defense and the State's rebuttal. Vanness' wife left the courthouse temporarily after the State's evidence, and was unable to return during the State's rebuttal. She eventually regained entry to the courtroom through the sheriff's department and informed Vanness' counsel the courthouse was locked. Vanness moved for a mistrial, which the court denied. After the jury convicted Vanness on all counts, he moved for a new trial, which was also denied. According to stipulated facts, the courthouse was closed from about 4:30 p.m. until about 7 p.m. From 4:24 p.m. until 5:04 p.m., the court was in recess. From 5:04 p.m. until 6:15 p.m., the court was in session, and the jury heard Vanness' defense and the State's rebuttal. The court was then in recess until the doors to the courthouse were reopened around 7 p.m. Vanness appealed, and the court of appeals reversed in a decision by Judge R. Thomas Cane. The court held that the closure of the courthouse during the trial violated Vanness' right to a public trial. After delineating the deep roots of the right of public trial, the court surveyed cases from other jurisdictions that divide denial of the right into trivial and nontrivial denials. In Peterson v. Williams, 85 F.3d 39 (2nd Cir. 1996), the court held a closure trivial where it lasted only 15 minutes, the testimony presented was summarized in open court, and the closure was entirely inadvertent. In contrast, in Walton v. Briley, 361 F.3d 431 (7th Cir. 2004), the court held that a closure was not trivial where state's entire case was presented after the courthouse was locked for the day. Also, in U.S. v. Canady, 126 F.3d 352 (2nd Cir. 1997), the court held that closing the...

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