The People v Alex Flores, Lucio Ramirez, Benigno Aguilar, and Emmanuel Flores
Issue before the Court: Whether a trial court has the authority to empanel an anonymous jury.
Held: Maybe: the Court dodged the question of whether a trial court may “anonymize” jurors, finding that, assuming the court had the authority for such an “extraordinary procedure,” the court did so here without any factual predicate.
CAL observes: Before the trial began in this multi-defendant Orange County gang assault case, the court advised the parties that it intended to withhold the names of prospective jurors and identify them by number instead. Announcing names, the court believed, discouraged jury service, and made jurors feel “uncomfortable,” based upon having “been doing this for almost 22 years ....” When defense counsel objected, the court responded that neither defendants nor their attorneys had a constitutional right to “actually know the names of the jurors,” and proceeded through jury selection identifying the jurors by number.
On appeal, the Second Department held that CPL 270.15 prohibits a trial court from withholding the names of prospective jurors: the plain language of CPL 270.15(1)(a) provides that prospective jurors’ names be called. While CPL 270.15(1–a) allows for the issuance of a protective order regulating disclosure of addresses, it does not allow for the issuance of a protective order regulating disclosure of names. Not only did the court err in anonymizing the jury, the Second Department held, but defendants were entitled to a new trial as a remedy for the error, because “[e]mpaneling an anonymous jury creates a potential for prejudice.”
While the Court of Appeals affirmed, it declined to carve out a rule that the CPL prohibits anonymous juries. Instead, in its brief memorandum opinion, the court “assumed” that trial courts had such a right “under certain circumstances.” While the Court labeled such a step an “extraordinary” one, it nonetheless seemed to sanction its possible availability.