The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in its June 24 decision in U.S. v. Brice that the public has a presumptive right of access to material witness proceedings. However, it also ruled that records should not be disclosed if they contain significant private information relating to a victim’s well-being.
The Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s decision not to unseal material witness records of two underage victims in a case involving charges of child sex-trafficking and prostitution, saying they contained “substantial amounts of material of especially personal and private nature relating to the medical, education, and mental health progress of the victims.”
The federal material witness statute allows the court to authorize the arrest and detention of a material witness if the government believes the person’s testimony at a criminal trial will be difficult to secure. The Department of Justice exercised this right by detaining two material witnesses, both children, in the case against Jaron Brice, who was convicted of various federal sexual abuse crimes for prostituting underage girls and adult women. Brice was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
During Brice’s sentencing, the District Court referred to sealed material witness proceedings relating to two of Brice’s juvenile victims. Brice appealed his sentencing, in addition to requesting the material witness records be released, citing the First Amendment presumptive right of access to judicial proceedings under Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia.
The District Court denied Brice’s request, citing Washington Post v. Robinson, because the material witness proceedings included “intensely private and painful information” about the girls’ medical and mental health issues.
Brice’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Jonathan Jeffress, argued at the April 14 hearing that common law and the First Amendment support presumptive public access to post-indictment material witness proceedings. Jeffress argued the courts have continuously supported the right to open criminal trials and preliminary hearings. He called such material witness proceedings “rife with potential for government abuse.”
The government asserted that there is neither a long history of openness in material witness proceedings nor a logical reason for such proceedings to be open, emphasizing the potential pitfalls that may occur as a result of opening the proceedings to the public. Opening the proceedings to the public would violate the privacy rights of the material witnesses and could set a precedent that could damage future government investigations, according to prosecutors.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the argument that the public has a right to material witness proceedings, but ruled that Brice did not have that right in this case.
“Neither this Court nor any other court of appeals has considered whether the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings extends to material witness proceedings. We need not decide that question here. We assume arguendo that the First Amendment affords the public a right of access to material witness proceedings. Even so, that right does not entitle Brice to the records of the material witness proceedings in this case,” the court's ruling said.
The Court of Appeals used the three-pronged Washington Post test to justify sealing the records. The test says the presumptive right of access can be overridden if closure serves a compelling interest, there is substantial probability openness would harm that compelling interest, and there are no other alternatives to closure that would protect the compelling interest.
Further, the Court of Appeals also denied Brice’s argument that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extended to material witness proceedings.