The Minnesota DWI Case Of The Week is State v. Montonye (decided April 12, 2021, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Unpublished) which stands for the proposition that a defendant has a right to a public trial at all phases of the proceeding.
In Montonye, the Defendant was charged with a DWI and went to trial in Stevens County, Minnesota. The Defendant was convicted and on appeal asserted his right to a public trial was violated when the Court examined a potential juror in chambers rather than in open court. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Defendant and reversed his conviction, noting:
"The United States and Minnesota Constitutions, with identical language, grant criminal defendants the right to a public trial: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial. . . U.S. Const, amend. VI; Minn. Const, art. I, § 6. The right to a public trial applies during all phases of trial, including voir dire of prospective jurors."
"Despite the text of the Sixth Amendment, the right to a public trial is not absolute. State v. Taylor, 869 N.W.2d 1, 10 (Minn. 2015) (quotation omitted). The closure of a courtroom may be justified if (1) ‘“the party seeking to close the hearing . . . advance[s] an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,’” (2) the closure is ‘“no broader than necessary to protect that interest,”’ (3) the district court considers “‘reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding,”’ and (4) the district court makes 'findings adequate to support the closure.'
"The state argues that Montonye’s right to a public trial was not implicated because a closure did not occur. Not all restrictions on access during a trial raise constitutional concerns—“[s]ome restrictions on access to the courtroom are so insignificant that they do not amount to a ‘true closure’ of the courtroom.” Petersen, 933 N.W.2d at 551 (quoting Taylor, 869 N.W.2d at 11-12). To determine whether a “true closure” occurred, courts look to several factors, including whether: (1) the courtroom was cleared of all spectators; (2) the proceedings remained open to the public and press; (3) there were periods where the public was absent; and (4) the defendant, the defendant’s family and friends, or other witnesses were excluded. Id. (citations omitted)."
"Here, during voir dire, when prospective jurors were being interviewed in a group setting in the courtroom, Juror W. disclosed that he had been in an accident involving a drunk driver. He explained that the accident had injured him and that he had been “pretty upset” at how the situation was handled. Still, Juror W. said that he did not think the prior incident would influence his ability to be fair and impartial. During this questioning, the district court stated, “I don’t want to get into too much details in front of everybody about what happened. I wonder whether we should ask him questions separate and apart from the other jurors. Counsel?” The state replied, “Perhaps,” and Montonye’s counsel remained silent. A few minutes later, the district court allowed the rest of the prospective jurors to take a break and said to Juror W., “I guess we could—yeah, we could take you in my office, my chambers, just ask you a little more detail about what’s going on and how you feel, what your experiences might have been . . . .” Counsel thereafter conducted voir dire of Juror W. with the judge in chambers. Proceedings were held off the record for about half an hour, and no record was made of the in-chambers voir dire.
"The state argues that a “true closure” did not occur because only one juror was individually questioned for a short period of time. He contrasts the case with Petersen, where we concluded that a true closure occurred when the courtroom was closed for approximately five to six hours of individualized questioning of prospective jurors. 933 N.W.2d at 551. While it is true that Petersen involved a more substantial closure of the courtroom, it does not preclude the in-chambers voir dire here from being a true closure. And, as we noted in Petersen, cases in which restrictions have been deemed not to be true closures “generally have involved the limited exclusion of certain identified persons while persons already present in the courtroom were allowed to remain.” Id. at 552 (citing State v. Zornes, 831 N.W.2d 609, 620-21 (Minn. 2013) (concluding that removing the victim’s brother, who was on the witness list, from the courtroom was not a true closure); Brown, 815 N.W.2d at 617-18 (concluding that locking the courtroom doors during jury instructions was not a true closure); State v. Lindsey, 632 N.W.2d 652, 660-61 (Minn. 2001) (concluding that removing two minor children was not a true closure); State v. Hicks, 837 N.W.2d 51, 61-62 (Minn. App. 2013) (concluding that closures for administrative proceedings typically held in chambers but conducted in the courtroom were not true closures))."
"Montonye argues that applying the relevant factors yields the conclusion that a true closure occurred here. We agree. While the district court did not clear the courtroom of spectators, the courtroom proceeding of voir dire took place away from the courtroom, in chambers, where spectators had no access. See Petersen, 933 N.W.2d at 552 (concluding that the “complete exclusion” of spectators from voir dire constituted a true closure). The proceeding was not open to the public or the press, and both were absent. See id. And, although it is unclear from the record whether Montonye, the defendant, was present, it is clear that Montonye’s family and friends and other witnesses were excluded. See id. Thus, the in-chambers questioning of Juror W. was a true closure."
"The next question in determining whether Montonye’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated is whether the closure was justified under the Waller factors."
"We note first that the district court did not satisfy the fourth Waller factor— specifically, it did not make findings adequate to support the closure. See Fageroos, 531 N.W.2d at 201-02; see also Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.02, subd. 4(4)(f). In general, in a courtroom-closure case, if a remand to the district court for additional findings “on whether there was a specific basis for closure” could remedy the improper closure, “then the initial remedy is a remand, not a retrial.” State v. McRae, 494 N.W.2d 252, 260 (Minn. 1992); see also Petersen, 933 N.W.2d at 553 (remanding for the district court to make findings concerning whether a closure was justified). On the record here, however, remanding for additional findings is unwarranted because two of the Waller factors cannot be met."
"In deciding to conduct in-chambers voir dire of Juror W., the district court stated that it did not “want to get into too much details in front of everybody about what happened” during Juror W.’s accident with a drunk driver and questioned whether voir dire of Juror W. should occur “separate and apart from the other jurors.” The district court’s expressed concern reasonably fits within the first Waller factor—that the closure would advance an overriding interest that would be otherwise prejudiced. See Fageroos, 531 N. W.2d at 201-02. The interest was that other jurors not be biased by Juror W.’s description of his negative experience."
"But the record provides no basis to find that the second and third Waller factors were met—namely, that the closure was no broader than necessary and that there were no reasonable alternatives to the closure. See id. It is clear on this record that the district court could have protected the interest of not letting Juror W.’s experience bias the other prospective jurors by excusing them from the courtroom and individually questioning Juror W. in open court. Because, on this record, the Waller factors cannot be satisfied, the appropriate remedy for the courtroom closure is a new trial and not a remand for additional findings."
"Because Montonye’s constitutional right to a public trial was violated, we reverse his convictions and remand this case to the district court for a new trial on all counts. Because our resolution of Montonye’s courtroom-closure argument is dispositive, we do not address the merits of his other two arguments claiming trial error."
Moral Of The Story: What happens in chambers should not stay in chambers.
If you or a loved one have been charged with a Minnesota DWI, feel free to contact Minnesota DWI Lawyer, F. T. Sessoms at (612) 344-1505 for answers to all of your Minnesota DWI and DUI questions.