No Sealing of Letters of Support in Sentencing for Police Brutality

Starting at U.S. v. GeorgeTuesday, December 2, 2006 by Judge Kenneth Bell (W.D.N.C.This Fourth Circuit decision provides more details on the case:

The First Amendment and the common law both guarantee public access to judicial proceedings. However, this right is not affected by unusual circumstances. Under the First Amendment standard, a “denial of access” to publicly filed documents “must be necessitated by a compelling … interest and narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Because public access to documents is necessary to ensure trustworthiness and curb abuses in the justice system and give the public a greater understanding of it, this high standard must be met. Because judges aren’t accountable to the public as elected officials, “[a]A step that removes an element from the judicial process is considered a “fiat” and must be substantiated. …

Defendant asks to file his Letters of Support under seal because this “case has received high public/media attention … [and]To preserve [his]Safety and privacy.” But, the Court found that sealing letters of support is incompatible with both the First Amendment (and the common law right of access by the public). Although the defendant states his privacy and safety are in danger, it is only conclusive and does not explain why public access to Letters of Support could cause him harm. To assist the Court in determining if sealing is compatible with either the First Amendment or the common law, he failed to give the required information by Local Rule 49.1.1.

He has not presented any evidence to support his request. The mere existence of media scrutiny, without any more specific proof of a compelling privacy right, is not sufficient to justify sealing court filings in order to comply with the First Amendment. Therefore, the Court is going to deny the Motion. It will only take into account the letters of support that are in the public record.

In its entirety, the Motion read:

Robert Michael George through Myra Cause his lawyer of record respectfully requests this Court to grant him permission to file his Letters of Support of Resentencing. The sensitive nature of the contents, as well as sensitive information supporting his request, justifies the Court’s refusal to seal the documents. The case has been widely covered by the media and we ask that Mr. George receive his Letters of Support of Resentencing under seal in order to ensure his safety and privacy.

You can also see another similar decision in the NIXVM sex cult case.