The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that requiring photo IDs from courtroom spectators does not violate a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial if the judge has evidence of potential violence related to testimony in the case.
The ruling comes in the case of Carlos Maldonado of Charlestown, convicting of shooting a fellow Bloods member to death in 2006 because he felt the man was a snitch. The state's highest court concluded he got a fair trial and should spend the rest of his life behind bars without possibility of parole.
After a Maldonado associate on the stand made what the judge felt was a threatening remark to him, the judge agreed with prosecutors to require all people entering the courtroom to show photo ID.
[A] few days earlier, a person with outstanding arrest warrants had "inquired of the mother and the sister" of a prosecution witness in the hallway of the court house. The prosecutor also argued that the identification procedure was justified to ensure compliance with witness sequestration, because there were persons on the witness list who did not know they were on the list, who had not been subpoenaed to testify, and whom the prosecutor did not know.
The court said that while requiring photo IDs from people entering the court did not constitute "closing" the courtroom in violation of the Sixth Amendment, it should only be done as a last resort:
[A] spectator should be free to enter a court room where a criminal case against an adult is being adjudicated without first having to show identification or provide one's name. That presumption may be overcome and identification may be required of spectators only where a judge sets forth on the record the reasons that justify imposing this condition on entry based on the special circumstances of the case and only where the conditions are no broader than needed to accomplish their purpose. Any party may seek interlocutory review of such an order by a single justice, who will review it for abuse of discretion.
When spectators must first identify themselves before entering a court room, they lose their anonymity and therefore become more accountable for their conduct in the court room, because if they then attempt to intimidate a witness or disrupt the proceedings, the court officer will know who they are. This has the benefit both of discouraging those who had intended to engage in such behavior from attending the trial, and of diminishing the risk that those who do attend the trial will engage in intimidating or disruptive conduct. See United States v. DeLuca, 137 F.3d at 35 n. 9. Because the conditions placed on entry into a court room may be no broader than needed to accomplish their purpose, and because the purpose of identifying court room spectators is to diminish the risk of witness intimidation and disruption of the court room, there must be an articulable risk of witness intimidation or court room disruption (or a comparable reason) that warrants the imposition of this condition on entry.
Not every criminal case justifies a finding of articulable risk, but we are satisfied that the special circumstances in this case more than warranted such a finding. The defendant in this case admitted he was a member of a youth gang, and he was accused of killing the victim because the victim was suspected of being an informant. A judge may recognize that, when a member of a gang is alleged to have committed a shooting, there is a risk that others associated with the gang may attempt to intimidate witnesses to cause them to exculpate, or at least avoid incriminating, the accused. There is also the risk that animosity that may exist between rival gangs, or between those associated with the accused and those associated with the victim, may spill over into the court room or the halls of the court house, and lead to disruption of the court room. Gauging the tension in a court room is something that trial judges routinely do, even though an atmosphere of tension is difficult to describe, so we give deference to a trial judge's appraisal both of the air of tension and the dangers it posed.