People v. Bialas.
2023 COA 50. No. 21CA1645. Sixth Amendment—Right to Public Trial—Trivial Courtroom Closures—Waller Test.
June 8, 2023
Bialas was found guilty of various charges relating to an attack on her ex-boyfriend. A court of appeals division reversed. During her second trial, the jury and the viewing public were dispersed throughout the courtroom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The court and counsel held a bench conference outside the courtroom, and when they returned, a juror informed the court that jurors could hear spectators discussing the case history. The court ordered the jury and the public out of the courtroom and questioned individual jurors in camera. The questioned jurors said they overheard that there had been a previous trial with a guilty verdict and that the commenting spectators believed the current trial was biased in favor of Bialas. Neither party requested a mistrial, but defense counsel asked that Bialas’s family be allowed to return to the courtroom because the questioned jurors indicated that the family had not made the inappropriate comments. The prosecution did not object. But the district court denied the request and banned all spectators from the courtroom. The public watched the rest of the trial via live video and audio stream. The jury convicted Bialas of second degree assault and violation of a protection order.
On appeal, Bialas argued that the district court’s removal of her family from the courtroom, despite their being able to view the trial via a live video and audio stream, constituted a nontrivial partial closure of the courtroom and violated her right to a public trial. Excluding an individual from the courtroom, regardless of the reason, constitutes a partial closure that implicates the Sixth Amendment, but trivial closures do not implicate these protections and thus do not constitute error. In determining whether a closure was trivial, courts analyze whether it implicated public trial rights by considering the duration of the closure, the substance of the proceedings that occurred during the closure, whether the proceedings were later memorialized in open court or placed on the record, whether the closure was intentional, and whether the closure was total or partial. This case involved a partial closure that was placed on the record, but every other factor weighs in favor of a nontrivial closure. Accordingly, a nontrivial partial closure occurred that implicated Bialas’s right to a public trial. For the closure to be constitutional, it had to meet the test under Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984), which requires (1) the party seeking closure to advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced; (2) the closure to be no broader than necessary to protect that interest; (3) the trial court to consider reasonable alternatives to closure; and (4) the trial court to make findings adequate to support the closure. Here, it was undisputed that Bialas’s family was not responsible for the inappropriate comments, neither party requested their exclusion, and their exclusion was an overbroad remedy for improper statements by others. Therefore, the partial closure was unconstitutional under Waller and, as such, was a structural error requiring reversal.
The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.