Minnesota Supreme Court opinion could affect trials held during pandemic
A ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday could affect trials held during the pandemic.
A majority opinion determined COVID-19 restrictions during a trial in Scott County may have violated a defendant’s right to a public trial.
The opinion focuses on the case against Abraham Bell, who pleaded not guilty to aggravated robbery. He was set to head to trial when Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency in March 2020 due to the spread of COVID.
The chief justice also put a pause on new trials until June, when some jury trials began under a pilot program that required COVID precautions. Bell’s trial was approved under the pilot program.
“This was the first in-person trial during COVID, so we were pretty much the test case for the state,” Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar said. “We continue to be a test case for the state given the appeal and the remand.”
According to the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, the county submitted a trial plan “that excluded all spectators from the courtroom but included a one-way video feed that would broadcast his trial in an adjacent courtroom.”
Bell’s request to have “the District Court to allow one or two seats in the courtroom” for the public or family members was denied. The Court argued the Scott County Courthouse wasn’t large enough to accommodate the 6-foot social distancing needed for additional people and that “safety is paramount in this case.”
Bell’s trial began and he was convicted.
“We certainly believe the judge acted accordingly and appropriately considering the guidelines that we were all under at that time,” Hocevar said. “It was a difficult time, obviously, to get things done in court given the guidelines, and we were all very relieved when we were able to get back to business. We believe everything was handled appropriately with the courts, with the in-person proceedings.”
Bell, however, seeks a new trial and argues his right to a public trial was violated.
In its majority opinion, the Supreme Court rules, “The restrictions put in place by the district court due to the COVID-19 pandemic amounted to a closure that implicated Bell’s public trial right.”
“The Supreme Court said send it back to the lower court for a reevaluation regarding whether or not there could’ve been a less restrictive way to run this trial,” explained David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor who teaches constitutional law.
The opinion orders the district court to make findings about the alternatives it considered before choosing to close the courtroom to the public. It said if the court determines the closure was no broader than necessary to protect against the spread of COVID-19, then the conviction will stand. If, however, the district court did not consider reasonable alternatives or determines the closure was broader than needed to be — for instance, two-way video was a reasonable option during the summer of 2020 — then there must be a new trial.
“It’s really going to be up to the judge,” said Hocevar, who said both sides will have the opportunity to present arguments again.
The outcome could determine the implications this opinion has for other trials held during the peak of the pandemic.
In some high-profile cases that went to trial, such as for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin or former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter, family members were allowed in the courtroom.
“Based upon this opinion if we look at trials like the Derek Chauvin trial, the Kim Potter trial, it looks like they potentially met the requirements of the Minnesota Supreme Court opinion,” Schultz said. “But there could be many, many other trials that don’t quite have that same notoriety or high-profile nature that could fall under [the opinion].”
According to Hocevar, the county prosecuted other cases with the same restrictions as were in place during Bells trial. He said none of those have been appealed.
Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office led the prosecution for the trials of Chauvin and Potter. John Stiles, a spokesman for Ellison, released the following statement:
“This case has nothing in common with the prosecutions of Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter. The judges in both those cases published extensive orders about why they were closing those trials to the general public at the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with extensive factual basis underlying them. They also published detailed trial orders that nonetheless provided for limited, socially-distanced access for family members and media representatives, along with social distancing of the jury and trial teams — and in both the Chauvin and Potter trials, the courts provided for television coverage that was aired across the globe. These facts are fundamentally different from the facts of the case that the Supreme Court ruled on today and today’s case does not provide a basis for any challenge to the Chauvin or Potter convictions under this new precedent. In addition, Chauvin’s appeal is now complete: his conviction was affirmed, and Potter never filed an appeal of her conviction.”John Stiles, spokesman for Attorney General Keith Ellison