People v. Dwight Reid & Hanza Muhammad
Issue before the Court: Were the courtroom closures improper? More specifically, in Reid, was
the total closure sufficiently supported by the record, and in Muhammad, were the court officers’
actions in poorly implementing the court’s closure policy attributable to the court or just
Held: In separate opinions, the Court found both closures to be improper and reversed both
Discussion: The right to a public trial is enshrined in the Constitution. For a courtroom to be
closed, the court must identify an “overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced” and, after
considering “reasonable alternatives” and making “findings adequate to support the closure,”
must implement a closure that is “no broader than necessary.” Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 48
In Reid, the court entirely closed the courtroom after courtroom photos of the defendant (not
witnesses or jurors) had been posted online and after the court observed members of the public
giving intimidating looks. The trial court rejected the defense’s alternative of banning cell
phones in the courtroom. The COA (6-0, with Cannataro writing the decision) reversed the
conviction finding that the trial court had not conducted a proper inquiry, had failed to describe
the supposed intimidation, and had imposed too broad of a closure.
In Muhammad, the court followed its general (and unobjected to) policy of restricting access to
the courtroom during witnesses’ testimony. The court officers, charged with enforcing this
policy, screwed up and did not invite the public into the courtroom prior to a witness’ testimony.
The COA (5+2 concurring, with Rivera writing the majority opinion and Garcia the concurrence)
reversed the conviction finding that the trial court was responsible for the COs’ actions because
the COs were acting as the court’s agents in enforcing its policy.
CAL observes: These represent increasingly rare and unanimous double victories for the defense
in murder cases. Reid, while breaking no new ground, highlights the importance of the record
and specifically chides the trial court for not making any inquiries and failing to describe the
supposed intimidation. The right to a public trial should not be cavalierly disregarded. Vague
allegations of intimidating looks will not be sufficient. Muhammad, while factually unique,
offers some more interesting tidbits.
Muhammad has an interesting overlap of improper delegation and agency law. The judge didn’t
intend to close the courtroom, yet by delegating its duties to enforce its policy against the public
entering the courtroom during witnesses’ testimony, the court assumed responsibility for its
agent’s implementation. This may have implications for when court officers improperly provide
substantive instructions during jury selection and deliberations.
Both opinions in Muhammad note that the trial court’s policy of closing the courtroom during a
witness’ testimony was not preserved, presented, or before the Court. That policy, as well as the
more common policy of closing the courtroom during the jury charge, is ripe for challenges going
forward. Notably, Chief Judge Rivera’s decision has an unmistakable racial narrative, as she
contrasts the white prosecution intern’s easy access to the courtroom with the indignities suffered
by the Black family and friends of the defendant who were made to wait in the hallway, who
could not enter until invited, whose phones were seized, and who were subject to invasive
screenings prior to entering. One wonders how the promise of a public trial is compromised by
those racial inequities and at what point do those screenings and limitations themselves amount
to a closure.