Kristin Smart case: News media coalition wants records not sealed

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From left: Robert Sanger, attorney representing Paul Flores, center, and his father Ruben Flores during pretrial motions on June 7, 2022. They are in a Monterey County courtroom. Paul Flores allegedly killed Kristin Smart after an off-campus Cal Poly party in May 1996. He was the last person seen with the Cal Poly student. Ruben Flores, the father of Paul Flores, is accused of complicity after the fact. The two were arrested in April 2021 – 25 years after Smart disappeared. Smart’s body was never found.

cjones@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo Tribune has teamed up with ABC News, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times in an effort to unseal the Kristin Smart murder case.

The news media coalition, formed by the Tribune, filed a motion Thursday to both unseal the records and allow remote online access to them.

Paul Flores was accused of killing Smart, a Cal Poly student who disappeared after a party on campus in May 1996. His father, Ruben Flores, is accused of helping hide Smart’s body after the fact. Both men were arrested in April 2021.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen transferred his lawsuit to Monterey County Superior Court, citing pretrial publicity.

Between April 20, when the Smart case was transferred to Salinas, and July 5, the last day the Tribune was physically at the Salinas courthouse, only about 12% of court records that do not relate to access to the media are public.

This lack of access is inconsistent with other felony murder trials, as well as with US and California law, the coalition argues.

“Transparency and media coverage of criminal court cases and proceedings allow the public to politically debate, evaluate and oversee the work of law enforcement and the judiciary in an informed way,” wrote Aaron Field, coalition counsel, in the motion. . “Neither party has demonstrated that any sealing is warranted in this case…”

The coalition is asking the court to unseal all filings in the case on or after April 20, provide the required context to their online share registry and declare the case “extraordinary”, which that would make the records available online.

Opening statements for the trial are scheduled to begin on Monday.

When should court documents be sealed?

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of access to criminal trials, and the California Supreme Court, in particular, has upheld the right of access to judicial process and folders.

“In this country it is a first principle that the people have a right to know what is going on before their courts,” the California Supreme Court ruled in 1893, setting a long-standing precedent that protects the right of the public to access court proceedings and records. .

This precedent was upheld in 1999, when the California Supreme Court ruled that court records and proceedings could only be sealed or closed to the public “in the rarest of circumstances.”

For a court document to be sealed, according to a 2002 California Supreme Court decision, a court must find the following:

  • There is an overriding interest that outweighs the right of public access
  • There is a high probability that the seal hunt favors this interest
  • The sealing order is narrowly tailored to serve the greater interest
  • There are no less restrictive alternatives to waterproofing

The California Supreme Court has also ruled that jury contamination is not sufficient justification to seal records, particularly if jurors are given sworn instructions to avoid outside information or if jury sequestration may address concerns. in matters of fair trial.

Additionally, the sealing petitions and orders in the Smart case have been sealed, so there’s no way to know what documents exist – something that appears to be inconsistent with California court rules. , according to the coalition.

According to the rules, the court must publicly file a notice of sealing of a written deposit together with the reasons justifying the sealing.

Sealing these records means that the public “cannot identify with confidence what documents are being withheld or the extent of the sealing, nor can they assess the parties’ and the court’s reasons for the secrecy or meaningfully assess whether the secrecy is appropriate,” Field wrote in the query. .

The gag order placed on the case in April 2021 by van Rooyen does not warrant sealing or closing the case, Field said in the motion. If so, the coalition asks the court to amend it to comply with the law or to strike it down altogether.

Which Kristin Smart case records are public?

According to a Tribune analysis of court records between April 20 and July 5, there were 243 documents filed between Paul and Ruben Flores’ cases in the trial.

Of these 243 repositories, 166 are sealed and 77 are public.

Of the public records, 54 relate to media requests, according to Tribune’s analysis. The other 23 relate to more administrative procedures, such as the selection of judges, trial dates and jury questioning procedures.

None of the public documents provide substantial information about the trial.

Not counting media access filings, 189 documents were filed between the two cases. And only 23 of them are public.

This means that only about 12% of the court records that deal directly with the case are public.

None of the publicly available documents offer information beyond administrative means, such as the identity of the judge, jury questioning procedures, or trial dates.

Remote access and share register

A share register, also known as a docket, lists filings by name and actions in the case that provides basic information about court proceedings, such as whether a petition was granted or denied.

Under California court rules, this record is supposed to be accessible online in criminal cases. The Tribune worked privately with the San Luis Obispo Superior Court to unblock this online access.

The Monterey County Superior Court filing gives little information on court proceedings, simply listing the filings by document types such as “motion”, “affidavit” or “document: other”. As things stand, it is impossible to obtain informative context about the legal proceedings from the online file.

The internal file, however, appears to have more information on the case, but clerks declined to release any information citing the gag order.

Criminal court records are generally only accessible through the court computer or through a public records request. The only way records may be available online is if the case is deemed “extraordinary”.

A criminal case is considered extraordinary if the number of requests for records is extraordinarily high and responding to these requests burdens the court’s operations.

The Monterey County Superior Court has refused to respond to public records requests electronically, instead requiring the public to send a request by mail and wait up to a month for a response or go to the courthouse in Salinas.

The Smart case has strong regional, state and national interest. But these rules make it difficult for many journalists – and interested members of the public – to access the documents.

A criminal case is considered extraordinary if the number of requests for records is extraordinarily high and responding to these requests burdens the court’s operations.

Given the considerable media and public interest in this case, particularly if the records are not sealed, the coalition says this is a “textbook case” to be found extraordinary, so that remote access to documents can be granted.

What’s next for the news media coalition?

The news media coalition has requested a hearing to have its motion heard as soon as possible. It is unclear whether the parties to the case will file responses to the motion or whether the judge will actually hold a hearing.

This story was originally published July 15, 2022 9:23 a.m.

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Chloe Jones is a forensic and crime reporter at the San Luis Obispo Tribune. She is originally from Phoenix, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and her master’s degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University. When she’s not reporting, she loves exploring the outdoors and spoiling her two rescue dogs, Camilla and Bugsy Malone.