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State v. Pittenger

Supreme Court of North Dakota

January 15, 2019

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Alexander Justin Pittenger, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Ward County, North Central Judicial District, the Honorable Stacy J. Louser, Judge.

          Marie A. Miller, Ward County Assistant State's Attorney, Minot, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Kiara C. Kraus-Parr, Grand Forks, ND, for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          Crothers, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Alexander Pittenger appeals from a criminal judgment entered on a jury verdict finding him guilty of corruption and solicitation of a minor and from an order denying a motion to dismiss the charge. We reverse the criminal judgment because the district court committed structural error by closing the courtroom during the complaining witness' testimony without considering the appropriate factors.

         I

         [¶ 2] The facts relevant to this appeal are that a jury convicted Pittenger of class A misdemeanor corruption or solicitation of a minor in violation of N.D.C.C. § 12.1-20-05. The district court closed the courtroom during the complaining witness' testimony. Pittenger objected to closing the courtroom and after his conviction he appealed. During pendency of the appeal this Court temporarily remanded the case to the district court to consider an "appropriate motion" in conjunction with the parties' stipulation that a "'structural error [occurred] in closing the courtroom during part of the State's case-in-chief.'" The State filed a motion to dismiss the charge with the district court. The court denied the motion and the case returned to this Court. II

         [¶ 3] Pittenger argues, and the State agrees, the district court committed reversible error in closing the courtroom during the complaining witness' testimony.

         [¶ 4] Denial of the right to a public trial without proper analysis is a structural error requiring automatic reversal. See State v. Rogers, 2018 ND 244, ¶¶ 3, 6, 919 N.W.2d 193; State v. Decker, 2018 ND 43, ¶ 8, 907 N.W.2d 378. Four constitutionally mandated factors must be considered before closing a courtroom to the public:

"1. the claiming party must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,
2. the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest,
3. the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and
4. it must make findings adequate to support the closure."

Rogers, at ¶ 15; Decker, at ¶ 9 (citing Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, ...


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