May 1, 2012


Delinquency proceedings: California law requires juvenile delinquency proceedings to be open if any of 28 violent crimes is involved, and prohibitions on the dissemination of information lawfully obtained during such proceedings violate the news media’s First Amendment rights, a state intermediate appellate court held. KGTV Channel 10 v. Superior Court, 26 Cal. App. 4th 1673, 1684 (Cal. Ct. App. 1994). Nor can the press or public be excluded from such hearings absent a showing of reasonable likelihood of substantial prejudice to the juvenile’s right to a fair trial. Brian W. v. Superior Court, 20 Cal. 3d 618, 624—25 (Cal. 1978) (involving competency hearing of a juvenile charged with kidnapping and murder); Cheyenne K. v. Superior Court, 208 Cal. App. 3d 331, 336 (Cal. Ct. App. 1989) (involving competency hearing of a juvenile charged with murder); Tribune Newspapers W., Inc. v. Superior Court, 172 Cal. App. 3d 443, 447 (Cal. Ct. App. 1985); (involving a hearing to determine whether two juveniles charged with bank robberies and other crimes while armed with a deadly weapon were fit to be dealt with under the juvenile court law). The judge also has the discretion to admit to juvenile court proceedings anyone with a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or in the work of the court — a phrase the California Supreme Court has interpreted to allow press attendance at juvenile hearings. Brian W., 20 Cal. 3d at 623. The juvenile court must for each day it is in session post in a conspicuous place accessible to the general public a written list of open hearings along with their locations and times. The public is generally excluded from all other delinquency hearings unless the minor and the minor’s parent or guardian request otherwise. Also, where one of the 28 violent crimes is a sexual offense, the public is not admitted to the hearing if the prosecutor makes a motion at the request of the victim for a closed hearing or during the victim’s testimony if the victim was 15 or younger at the time of the offense. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 676 (West 2012).

Dependency proceedings: The public is excluded from juvenile dependency proceedings in California unless a parent or guardian requests otherwise and the minor involved consents to or requests public access. But the judge has the discretion to admit anyone with a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or in the work of the court. Id. § 346. Interpreting this language, the state intermediate appellate court found that the juvenile court should “allow press access unless there is a reasonable likelihood that such access will be harmful to the child’s or children’s best interests in the case.” Although the juvenile court, in exercising its discretion to allow public or media access to a juvenile dependency proceeding, should “first and foremost” consider what is in the best interests of the minor, the media “can assist juvenile courts in becoming more effective instruments of social rehabilitation by providing the public with greater knowledge of juvenile court processes, procedures, and unmet needs,” the court said. San Bernardino County Dep’t of Pub. Soc. Servs. v. Superior Court, 232 Cal. App. 3d 188, 207—08 (Cal. Ct. App. 1991). Pursuant to a Jan. 31, 2012, order by Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash, members of the media are deemed to have a legitimate interest in the work of the court, and juvenile dependency proceedings in Los Angeles County are open to the media unless the parties involved can show that harm or detriment to the minor is reasonably likely to occur because of media access to the proceeding.

Delinquency and dependency records: Juvenile court records are confidential and may be viewed only by certain individuals and agencies designated by statute. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 827. But the state intermediate appellate court held that a broader category of people than those enumerated in the statute may be permitted access to material in juvenile court files in the appropriate case. “The prohibition against dissemination recognizes the exclusive authority of the juvenile court to determine who may have access to juvenile court records. … If a juvenile court determines, consistent with the best interests of the minors, that records should be released to the press, the court has made the decision that the public can learn the content of the disclosed records,” the court ruled in In re Keisha T., 38 Cal. App. 4th 220, 234 (Cal. Ct. App. 1995). And the state attorney general found that where juvenile proceedings are open to the public, the district attorney may provide the news media with whatever information is available to the public at those proceedings unless the court has placed restrictions on such dissemination. Cal. Op. Att’y Gen. 81-1007 (1982). Any person not designated in the statute who wishes to inspect, obtain or copy juvenile court records must petition the court for authorization using a specific form. Among other things, the petitioner is required to “describe in detail the reasons the records are being sought and their relevancy to the proceeding or purpose for which petitioner wishes to inspect or obtain the records.” In determining whether to release juvenile court records, the court must balance the interests of the child and other parties involved against those of the petitioner and the public. The court may allow disclosure of juvenile court records only if “the records requested are necessary and have substantial relevance to the legitimate need of the petitioner.” Cal. Juv. Ct. R. 5.552. In considering a request for access to the juvenile case records of a child who died, however, no weighing of interests is required, and the files must be released, even if no dependency petition had ever been filed, unless there is a showing that doing so is detrimental to the safety, protection or physical or emotional well-being of another child who is directly or indirectly connected to the juvenile case at issue. The statute’s legislative history demonstrates the legislature’s interest in opening up to public view the workings of the entire juvenile court and child protective system for the purpose of exposing deficiencies within them, the court said. In re Elijah S., 125 Cal. App. 4th 1532, 1542—43, 1555 (Cal. Ct. App. 2005); see also Pack v. Kings County Human Servs. Agency, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 594, 601 (Cal. Ct. App. 2001).

There are additional exceptions that allow access to records in some juvenile delinquency cases. The name of a minor found to have committed one of the 28 violent offenses is public unless the court makes an on-the-record written finding explaining why good cause exists to make the name of the minor confidential. In this context, “good cause” is limited to protecting the personal safety of the minor, a victim or member of the public. The charging petition, minutes of the proceeding and orders of adjudication and disposition of the court contained in the court file are available for public inspection, although public access to other documents in the court file is not necessarily available. The probation officer or any party may petition the juvenile court to prohibit public disclosure of any such file or record. The juvenile court will grant the request if it appears that the harm to the minor, victims, witnesses or public from the public disclosure outweighs the benefit of public knowledge. The court cannot, however, prohibit disclosure for the benefit of the minor unless it makes a written finding that the reason for the prohibition is to protect the safety of the minor. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 676. Also, a law enforcement agency may disclose the name of any minor 14 years old or older who has been charged with a serious felony under Cal. Penal Code § 1192.7. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 827.5.

Restrictions on coverage: California law allows a trial judge to close the courtroom when a minor victim or one with a physical or developmental disability and substantial cognitive impairment regardless of age testifies about a sexual offense. Before the judge may do so, however, he or she must find that closure is essential to preserve higher values and narrowly tailored to serve that interest. And a transcript of the testimony of the witness must be made publicly available as soon as practicable. Closing the courtroom during the testimony of a 14-year-old molestation victim based only on the prosecutor’s assertion that the victim would be uncomfortable violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Cal. Penal Code § 868.7; People v. Baldwin, 142 Cal. App. 4th 1416, 1421 (Cal. Ct. App. 2006). In addition, victims 13 years old or younger may testify in cases involving sexual offenses, violent felonies and child abuse outside the presence of the defendant via video-recorded testimony or closed-circuit television. In cases involving sexual offenses, the testimony of victims who are 15 years old or younger and those who are developmentally disabled regardless of age may be video-recorded during a preliminary hearing for use at trial. The law does not specify whether the media and public may remain in the courtroom during this testimony, although it does state that the videotape will be subject to a protective order of the court to protect the privacy of the victim. Id. §§ 1346, 1347. Although court rules governing photographing, recording and broadcasting in California courtrooms do not specifically restrict coverage of minors, they do list among the factors a judge must consider when deciding a request for coverage the effect of such coverage on any minor who is a party, prospective witness, victim or other participant in the proceeding. Cal. Ct. R. 1.150.