Appeals court upholds judges' right to suppress audio records - ABC21: Your Weather Authority

Appeals court upholds judges' right to suppress audio records

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA 21) -

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled a Huntington County judge did not violate state guidelines or the U.S. Constitution in barring the broadcast of an audio recording made during a sentencing hearing in his courtroom earlier this year.

The appeal was filed by attorneys on behalf of WPTA/ABC21, which obtained the recording from the Huntington court.

Huntington Circuit Judge Thomas Hakes cited a judicial conduct rule in April, when he released the audio, confirming that it was an official record made by the court but preventing its broadcast under threat of a contempt citation.

The audio file included testimony from the sentencing phase of the trial of Dr. John Mathew, who pleaded guilty to two counts of felony sexual battery on an employee at his clinic. The plea deal reduced the charges from the initial counts of rape, sexual battery and battery.

Mathew received no jail time, prompting a protest outside the courthouse by area residents who felt the sentence did not go far enough. The lead prosecutor in the case called the sentence "disappointing."

Hakes denied an ABC21 Motion to Reconsider, and the station filed an appeal. The appeal was supported by the Society of Professional Journalists, National Freedom of Information Coalition, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Radio Television Digital News Association and Indiana Broadcasters Association.

Writing for the Court of Appeals, Judge Patricia Riley found that the broadcast of an audio recording -- even after the conclusion of the trial -- "would have an intimidating impact, not only on the behavior of the witnesses and other actors -- causing possible fear and reluctance to testify -- but also on the openness and candidness of any trial testimony."

The Court of Appeals defended the Constitutionality of "Judicial Rule 2.17," which bars the use of cameras or other third-party recording devices and which the courts have applied to official audio recordings, as well. Judge Riley writes: "By limiting the scope of Judicial Rule 2.17 to merely those instances where the governmental interest is strongest, the state judiciary has narrowly tailored the Rule to advance its legitimate interest without overly burdening free expression while, at the same time, providing ample alternative channels of communication of the information contained in the recordings by making the transcripts of the hearing available."

Rules vary, but the majority of states allow the use of second-party (such as news media) video and audio recording devices in criminal court proceedings. In some cases, judges may impose restrictions or directives.

Though Indiana's lower court system operates under a blanket ban of such outside recording devices, the state's Court of Appeals and the Indiana Supreme Court broadcast proceedings as they take place and make them available via an archive on the Court website. Oral arguments were not presented in the ABC21 appeal.

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