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In the Matter of Alamance County Closed Court Proceedings

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  1. Court Access

Court: North Carolina Court of Appeals

Date Filed: Dec. 11, 2020

Update: On Dec. 11, the North Carolina Court of Appeals denied the Reporters Committee’s motion for leave to file its friend-of-the-court brief. On Dec. 18, the Alamance County Courts issued an order clarifying how members of the news media can gain access to courthouses and courtrooms. As a result of that order, the North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed the writ petition as moot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Background: On Oct. 31, 2020, police in Graham, North Carolina, made national headlines when they used pepper spray vapors to disperse a crowd of demonstrators during a peaceful march for voter turnout. Police arrested 23 people, including a journalist and the mother of a child who was the victim of an alleged vehicular assault by Sandrea Brazee in August 2020.

The trial court in Alamance County has thus far excluded the public and press from the criminal proceedings against Brazee and those arrested at the protest, allowing only victims, defendants and defense counsel in the courtroom due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Signs posted outside the Alamance County courthouses appear to bar members of the public and press from entering the courthouses entirely.

Without a hearing or making any findings, the trial court denied requests by The News and Observer, The Alamance News, and Triad City Beat for access to hearings on Dec. 2 and 8, 2020, including a motion objecting to the court closures. When Tom Boney, Jr., publisher of the Alamance News, attempted to object to the closure of Brazee’s sentencing in person on Dec. 8, Judge Fred Wilkins threatened to hold him in contempt and ordered deputies to remove him, which they did in handcuffs.

The news organizations filed a petition with the North Carolina Court of Appeals requesting that it order the Alamance County criminal courts to permit the public and press to access the proceedings at issue.

Our Position: The appeals court should grant the news organizations’ petition and order the Alamance County criminal courts to open the proceedings at issue to members of the press and public.

  • The trial court’s wholesale closure of these criminal proceedings undermines public confidence in our courts and violates the First Amendment and North Carolina Constitution.
  • Courts in Alamance County and around the country have accommodated public access, as they must, despite COVID-19 restrictions, and the trial court should here as well.
  • Depriving a journalist of his opportunity to object to court closure by handcuffing and physically removing him is unconstitutional and wholly improper.

Jonathan Buchan, Jr. of Essex Richards, P.A. served as the Reporters Committee’s local counsel for this brief.

Quote: “Without corrective action by this Court, the trial court will likely continue to exclude the public and press from these criminal proceedings, impeding the public’s ability to understand the dispositions of these cases. This sets a dangerous precedent, for other closed proceedings will likely follow, and each one will chip away at public confidence in the integrity of North Carolina’s judicial system.”

Related: In November, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 26 media organizations urged the Graham Police Department in North Carolina to drop charges against a local news reporter who was arrested while covering the Oct. 31 demonstration.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reporters Committee has advocated for judicial proceedings and court records to remain accessible to members of the press and public.

In September, for example, we urged the U.S. Supreme Court to continue providing live audio of oral arguments for as long as the Supreme Court building is closed due to the public health crisis. And in June, the Reporters Committee sent a letter to the policy-making body of the California courts urging it to issue guidance that would ensure public and press access to judicial proceedings during the pandemic and other future emergencies.