New York Court of Appeals: People v. Echevarria

The defendants, Alex Echevarria, Andrew Moss, and Martin Johnson, were arrested after selling controlled substances to undercover police officers. In each case, a pretrial hearing was held pursuant to People v. Hinton to determine whether the courtroom should be closed to the general public during the testimony of the undercover officers involved to protect their safety. 31 N.Y.2d 71 (1972). During the hearings, the undercover officers testified about their continued participation in undercover operations, their pending cases, the violence they have experienced, and the precautions they have taken to conceal their identities during visits to the courthouse. In each case, the trial court closed the courtroom to the public during the testimony of the undercover officers to protect their safety.

On appeal, the defendants maintained that they were entitled to a new trial because of the deprivation of their constitutional right to a public trial when the trial was closed to the public during the officers’ testimony. The defendants brought their challenge on two prongs of the four-part standard that must be satisfied to justify closing a courtroom under the Sixth Amendment: “‘[T]he party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,’ [and] ‘the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding . . .’” Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 48 (1984).

As to the first component, after a thorough analysis of case law, the Court held that the trial court did not err in finding a nexus between the officers’ safety and their testimony in an open courtroom. In buy-and-bust cases such as this, a nexus or “specific link must be made between the officer’s safety concerns and open-court testimony.” People v. Ramos, 90 N.Y.2d 490, 498 (1997). As to the second component, the Court explained that the defendants’ argument here—that the trial court must always explicitly explain what alternative measures it considered—has been rejected in the past.

The Court held that there were no Sixth Amendment violations in any of these cases where a Hinton hearing took place and where the courtroom was closed for only limited portions of the trial to protect the safety of the undercover officers. The defendants were not deprived of their Sixth Amendment right to a public trial when the trial courts narrowly-tailored the closure of the courtroom.
Additionally, defendants Echevarria and Johnson asserted that they were entitled to a new trial because of erroneous jury instructions on the agency defense. In Echevarria’s case, the Court held that the jury instructions given were erroneous because the jury was instructed on only two of six relevant factors, both unfavorable to him, and that he was entitled to a new trial. In both Johnson’s and Moss’s cases, the appellate division’s order was affirmed.

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21 N.Y.3d 1, 966 N.Y.S.2d 747 (2013)

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