Court allows inspection, but not copying, of confession
NEW YORK–In late March, a state criminal court judge in Brooklyn held that members of the media could inspect a criminal defendant’s confession because it was part of the court file, but could not photograph or photocopy it because the defendant would be unduly prejudiced if a picture of his handwritten confession were published.
The court noted that trial judges possess an “inherent power” to regulate access to court documents and to bar it in certain circumstances, but also wrote that state law and the First Amendment require public access to all non-confidential material in the court’s files.
The prosecution filed defendant Anthony Hodges’ confession in the Kings County Supreme Court as part of a statutorily required notice of its intention to use his statements against him at trial. If the state fails to give the defendant such notice 15 days prior to arraignment or to provide the defense with the “sum and substance” of the statements, they may be suppressed. New York law requires that the defendant be “served” with the notice, but does not require that it be filed with the court.
The judge said that filing notice is desirable and provides an indisputable record of whether the state complied with the statute. It also serves significant public policies such as aiding the court in its evaluation of cases, facilitating the court’s participation in plea negotiations and planning future proceedings.
Hodges argued that the document should be sealed because state law does not require its filing and that he would be prejudiced by its disclosure, particularly if his confession were suppressed. The state opposed his motion, citing the public’s First Amendment and common law rights of access to court files. Because he granted the press access to the document, the judge denied as unnecessary a motion by the New York Daily News to intervene.
Hodges was indicted for two counts of first degree murder in connection with the fatal stabbings of a woman and her four-year-old son. The district attorney is considering whether to seek the death penalty. (New York v. Hodges)