On July 24, 2008, Braulio Agosto-Vega (“Agosto”) and Braulio Agosto Motors, Inc. (“Agosto Motors”) were found guilty of violating the criminal provisions of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251 et seq. for allowing the unlawful discharge of raw sewage from a point source into waters of the United States. What is interesting about this matter is that on appeal, the issue of open courts required the appellate court to grant a new trial. It is a right we tend to take for granted; however, it can be a slippery slope.
From the opinion, the facts are fairly straight forward. The District Court judge was conducting voir dire in a courtroom other than her usual courtroom as the regular courtroom was under repair. When jury selection began on June 18, 2008, the defense attorneys complained to the court that the “court's security officers were refusing to allow members of the Agosto family into the courtroom during jury selection.” The judge responded by stating that there was no room because the venire panel was taking up all of the room on the benches. After going back and forth on some suggestions of how to seat everyone, with no resolution, jury selection went forward, over the objections of defense counsel. After the jury selection, the defense counsel also noted that the press was also excluded from the courtroom.
In dealing with the issues on appeal, the First Circuit Court of Appeals commended the judge for trying to insulate the jury panel from “improper influences.” The First Circuit Court of Appeals also took the government’s lawyers to task for “failing to come to the court’s aid” regarding the jury selection process.
In overturning the conviction based on Sixth Amendment arguments, the First Circuit Court of Appeals cited Presley v. State, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 721 (2010) (Sixth Amendment right applies to jury selection process). It was a somewhat bitter sweet victory as the First Circuit Court of Appeals also found that the evidence was sufficient to warrant upholding the conviction. But for the closure of the court during jury selection . . ..
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