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Reporters Committee pushes for openness in material witness proceedings

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., asking the court to further consider a judge's decision to seal proceedings related to the government's detention of crime victims to ensure their appearances as trial witnesses.

At issue in United States v. Brice is the suppression of the entire record of proceedings held pursuant to the federal material witness statute, which allows the arrest and detention of material witnesses whose testimony at a criminal trial may be difficult to secure otherwise.

The Justice Department invoked the statute to detain two witnesses, both minors at the time, in preparation for the trial of Jaron Brice, whom the jury convicted of several child prostitution and trafficking-related charges. In proceedings that were closed to the public and Brice, the U.S. District Court judge allowed the government to detain the witnesses.

The court denied Brice's request to unseal the proceedings, and a three-judge panel of the appellate court upheld the ruling. The Reporters Committee’s brief supports Brice’s request that the panel reconsider or, alternatively, the full appellate court hear the case.

The trial court correctly concluded that a First Amendment right of access applies to material witness proceedings, the brief argued. The judge failed, however, to follow well-established U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence that clearly sets forth the procedural steps courts must take to preserve that right, namely a balancing of the government's compelling interest in protecting the privacy of the witnesses and the public's interest in access to its courts, and a consideration of adequate alternatives to closure, the brief added.

Safeguarding the right of access is particularly important in circumstances in which a person's physical liberty is at stake, the brief argued. Public oversight of such proceedings is necessary to ensure fairness and promote public confidence in the judicial system.

"The interest in openness in this case is not mere curiosity but rather a concern about the very integrity of the courts — the judiciary's ability to detain people who have not been charged with any criminal offense," the brief argued. "Indeed, of particular concern to [the Reporters Committee] is the distinction between the sealing of private facts disclosed in the proceedings and the sealing of other relevant information related to both the court's imposition of an increased sentence and the legal reasoning behind its determination of whether material witnesses would be detained."

The physical liberty implications are particularly high in this case, where the trial court used information obtained in the secret proceedings as a basis for increasing the defendant's sentence, the brief noted.

“The law is clear that when a defendant faces jail time determined by one person, a trial judge, the press and public must have a means to evaluate the appropriateness of the punishment,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “Excessive secrecy like that in this case engenders the very type of suspicion of government that open proceedings are intended to dispel."

The Reporters Committee brief is posted on its website.

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.