A federal appeals court on Monday overturned a man’s firearms conviction in a northern California lower court because COVID-19 protocols prevented the public from observing his trial.
In a 3-0 decision, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that restrictions imposed by the lower district court last year – which provided the public with an audio feed of the trial, but no video – had raped the accused James David Allen II. right to a public trial under the 6th Amendment.
“Here, the district court cannot show that allowing a limited number of members of the public to view the trial in the courtroom, or via live video streamed to another room, would jeopardize public health. “, said the appeal committee.
As a remedy, the panel returned Allen’s case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California for a new trial. He also ordered that Allen be granted a new preliminary hearing to argue for the suppression of certain evidence, as an initial hearing on those issues was also held out of public view.
Allen had been convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to six years in prison. Prosecutors say Allen traveled in 2020 from his home state of Washington to California with an AR-15 type rifle, intending to harm a San Francisco stockbroker.
Police found him asleep in a car, with weapons, in July 2020 in Pinole, California. Allen had told the court that a drug relapse had turned his life upside down.
Allen could not be reached on Monday. Hanni Fakhoury, his attorney, and Lisa Ma, an assistant federal public defender who argued in the case, both declined to comment.
It’s unclear what potential implications the appeals court ruling could have on other cases being held under similar COVID-19 restrictions, or even how many such trials there have been – either in court district of the Northern District of California, or elsewhere in the state and country.
A spokesperson for the Northern District Court declined to comment on Monday, saying it “does not offer comment on specific cases.”
An appeals court spokeswoman said it ‘does not track or have any way of knowing how many cases have occurred in the district courts’ under the present conditions in Allen’s case .
“The tribunal is addressing issues raised by parties in individual appeals as they arise,” the spokeswoman said. She also declined to comment, saying the decision “speaks for itself.”
In its ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found no constitutional violations in the general COVID-19 protocols that were put in place by the Chief Justice for the Northern District, namely that criminal trials could proceed. proceed with certain restrictions in place.
Instead, the appeals court took aim at what it called “additional COVID restrictions” specifically enacted in Allen’s case by Presiding U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr., which “prevented members of the public to enter the courtroom and gave them access to the proceedings only via audio streaming over the Internet.
While the lower court “had to balance protecting a defendant’s right to an open trial against the goal of stemming the spread of COVID”, and courts can impose limited access restrictions for compelling reasons, Gilliam’s restrictions on visual access to the trial — which he enforced over objections from Allen and his attorney — went too far, the higher court wrote.
“Although a listener may be able to detect vocal inflections or accents that could not be discerned from a cold transcription, an audio stream deprives the listener of information regarding behavior and body language. of the participant in the trial,” the court concluded. “An auditor also cannot observe the judge’s attitude or the jury’s reactions to the testimony of a witness, nor can it scan visual exhibits.”
In fact, the court noted, the district court had “implicitly recognized the value of visual observation” when it required witnesses in Allen’s trial to wear transparent masks.
The court also wrote that “failure to expose the judge, attorney, defendant, and jury to the public eye (as well as ear) undermines confidence in the proceedings.”
The court wrote that its decision came after a review of protocols in other U.S. courts over the same period showed Gilliam’s measures were “truly exceptional.”
For example, other federal courts had “routinely allowed some form of visual access to the trial, either by allowing the public to view a live video feed of the trial in a separate room from the courthouse or by allowing a limited number of spectators to be present in the courtroom,” the appeals court wrote.
Given that such alternatives were available, the audio-only trial in Allen’s case was insufficient, especially since there were no other considerations – such as national security concerns – that could have justify the closed door policy.
The opinion was written by Judge Sandra Ikuta, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. Ikuta was joined by Justices Lawrence VanDyke, who was nominated by President Trump, and Carlos F. Lucero, nominated by President Clinton and serving by 10th Circuit designation.
The appeals court separately dismissed Allen’s claims that he was denied a speedy trial.