In a recent DUI jury trial I did, the defendant was convicted but the court ordered a new trial because of an error that occurred during the trial. When you think of an error that could occur in a DUI trial, most lawyers would think that maybe it had something to do with the accuracy of the breath test, or the field sobriety tests. But in this case the error that occurred was a little bit different. In this DUI trial the court granted the defendant’s motion for a new trial because it became clear that part of the trial was conducted when the courthouse was already closed and locked for the night. The courthouse doors locked at 5 p.m. but the trial wasn’t over until 5:15 p.m.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial….” This public trial requirement means that the courtroom has to be publicly accessible in all trials except under the most extreme circumstances. Whether the case is a major felony or just a misdemeanor, the rule is the same. The public trial requirement was written into the Constitution as a safeguard to keep the participants of the trial honest. Secret trials are banned in most free countries. An open trial process also informs the public about how their system is working.
The in question case involved a WSU student who was alleged to have driven while intoxicated in Pullman, Washington. The case didn’t attract any media attention. There really wasn’t anyone watching the trial anyway. However, the constitution is clear. Trials must be open to the public.