Court Security Rules Under Consideration 

Measures to Ensure Public Access to Trials on the Table
By Amy Yarbrough

Daily Journal Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO - This summer, the media seethed after being locked out of what should have been an open hearing in a high-profile Yolo County murder case. As a result, courts around the state may soon be required to flesh out plans for ensuring public access to proceedings.

The Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state's courts, is slated to vote today on new rules specifying a variety of areas that trial courts must address in security plans. Among the proposed requirements is that courts must describe their policies for protecting criminal defendants' rights to public trials and "the legal rights of public access to court proceedings."

'Zero Defect'

If approved, courts would also be required to describe how security staff are trained with regard to open court proceedings and to share open access policies with groups like the local bar and the media.

"The goal is to have a zero defect on something like this," said William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts.

The security plan guidelines highlight 24 areas court security plans must address, from mail handling to evacuation plans. The provision addressing public access to court proceedings was spurred by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who sent a letter to Vickrey following the Yolo County incident.

Locked Out

On June 18, reporters and members of the public - including the family of the defendant - were locked out of the court building during the arraignment of Marco Antonio Topete, accused of killing Yolo County Sheriff's Deputy Jose Antonio Diaz.

According to local newspapers, while press and the public waited outside the Woodland court's building, the slain deputy's family and his colleagues were allowed in through a court side door.

Court officials and Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto, whose office provides security for the court, acknowledged in newspaper interviews that a mistake had been made.

According to Assistant Court Executive Officer Shawn Landry, the sheriff's office has admitted full responsibility for the incident.

Landry said an internal investigation found that in the excitement of preparing for the high-profile hearing deputies, had forgotten to unlock the public entrance to the building, which also houses county operations, after it was closed for lunch. While some of the slain deputy's colleagues attended the hearing to provide security, others were there as spectators. Per court policy, they should have gone in the same way the public would have, Landry said.

The court's rules specify access to hearings on a first-come, first-served basis.

"It should never had happened and it will never happen again here in Yolo," he said.

Landry said he had not yet seen the security plan recommendations.

"If that's the proposal Yolo County Superior Court is in full support of it," Landry said, after he was given a synopsis of the wording pertaining to public access to hearings. "There should be open access to trials. We're in full support of that."

In her July 17 letter to Vickrey, Romero, who chairs the Senate Committee on Public Safety, called the Yolo County incident "a shocking reminder" of how easily criminal defendants' right to a public trial and the public's right of access to court proceedings could be violated.

Romero noted news reports indicating the incident was "not an isolated case of denying access to court proceedings in Yolo County" and anecdotal evidence that suggests it happens elsewhere.

"Openness assures the public that justice is administered fairly and guards against prosecutorial bias and perjury," Romero wrote, urging the Judicial Council to include wording on open hearings in the court security plan requirements. "Public confidence in our judicial system will quickly erode if we do not take steps now to ensure that courts do not operate in secret."

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, applauded the effort.

"I don't think we have particularly widespread problem but, if we're beginning to have more Yolo counties, this hopefully will bring it to (their) attention and put a stop to it," Scheer said. "It basically forces everyone to think about the issue."

If approved, each Superior Court will have to submit a security plan to the Administrative Office of the Courts by Nov. 1, 2009. Courts and sheriff's offices would have to collaborate in developing plans, and in reviewing them.