About a half dozen Black Lives Matter supporters sat quietly in Saratoga Springs City Court Thursday as a show of support for Gabrielle Elliott, who briefly appeared before a city judge on charges connected to the Sept. 7 arrests of activists outside the City Hall police station.
Some of those same supporters attempted to do the same thing on Tuesday morning, when a handful of protesters appeared for their own hearings, but were barred from accessing the courtroom by Saratoga Springs police officers, according to multiple accounts, despite a strong assumption of public access to court proceedings embedded in state and federal law. Public access to court proceedings is considered a foundational tenet of the fair administration of justice.
In the days since access was denied, officials with the state Office of Court Administration have contacted Saratoga Springs police to reiterate the public’s right to freely access to the courtroom. Saratoga police have also gradually walked back their evolving explanation of what happened Tuesday.
City police officials on Tuesday and Wednesday pointed the finger at court officials, suggesting a judge had closed the courtroom to the public. But city court proceedings on Tuesday were never closed to the public, according to Chief Clerk Casey Scatena. Courts are rarely closed to the public, a process that requires a judicial finding that closing a proceeding serves the interests of a fair trial, and gives members of the press an opportunity to contest that decision.
After four protesters turned themselves in at the city police station entrance on the side of City Hall Tuesday morning, the parents of some of the activists appearing in court and a Daily Gazette reporter went through the first-floor City Hall entrance, past city police officers and to the second floor, where a separate group of court administration officers use a metal detector and ask COVID-19 screening questions before allowing access to the courtroom.
(The state courts rent space on the second floor of Saratoga City Hall, home to a historic wood-paneled courtroom.)
A few minutes later, though, a group of around a dozen people hoping to attend court in support of the activists, who have been charged in connection to a July 14 protest in downtown Saratoga Springs, were stopped by city police officers and told they could not come in but were not given a reason why, according to multiple accounts.
While Saratoga police Lt. Bob Jillson, a department spokesperson, on Wednesday night said the judge had closed the courtroom to the public due to a disruption, Scatena said the courtroom had not been closed and that court administration officials allow anyone to access the court as long as they are wearing a mask.
“We have not heard anything about the court being closed because of any disruption,” Scatena said in an interview Thursday. “We let anyone in the courtroom up to code capacity. The court didn’t stop anyone from coming in; we will let anyone in as long as they had a mask on.”
Scatena said she did not know why city police barred access to the facility.
(The state courts have their own security presence on the second floor of City Hall, where the courts are located.)
“As far as [city] police doing anything downstairs to not let people in, we don’t know anything about that,” Scatena said.
Jillson on Thursday acknowledged that court officials had not closed the courtroom and said that the information he was given from others inside the Police Department was inaccurate. He did not say who told him the courtroom was closed because of a disruption but said he was wrong to pass it on.
“Shame on me, I got my information from the Police Department that’s what took place,” Jillson said Thursday, referring to the suggestion a judge had closed the courtroom. “However, it’s not the case.”
Saratoga Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton on Thursday said that since city police have only been stationed on the first floor of City Hall for a few weeks there may have been a miscommunication that needs to be addressed through better procedures. She also said she was informed that court officials had communicated something to city police that made city police think they needed to bar access, which court officials denied.
The issue of access to the court raised enough red flags this week that the matter was referred to the Fourth Judicial District’s chief of security, David Joseph, who since Tuesday has communicated with Assistant Police Chief John Catone about how to ensure access to the court would not be restricted in the future.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson with the state Office of Court Administration, on Thursday reiterated that court officials took no action Tuesday that would have limited public access to the courtroom.
“There was absolutely no judge-directed closure of the courtroom on Tuesday or any communication from administration to Saratoga City Police to prevent access to the court,” Chalfen said by email.
Chalfen said court officials were notified on Tuesday that members of the public were denied access to the court, prompting Joseph, the regional chief of court security, to contact the Saratoga Springs police sergeant on duty, who initially denied that public access was restricted. After conferring with an officer at the City Hall entrance, the sergeant on duty indicated that that officer was instructed by his supervisor not to let anyone into the facility, Chalfen said.
“The chief [of security for the Fourth Judicial District] advised Catone what had occurred on Tuesday and told him that court is open, that all who seek admittance should be permitted entry,” Chalfen said in the statement. “Catone said he will look into it.”
Jillson on Thursday said police were looking into what happened on Tuesday.
“We are going to look into it internally,” Jillson said. “We have to look at what took place on Tuesday on the first floor.”
Chandler Hickenbottom, who had a court appearance on Tuesday, said she and fellow activist Samira Sangare, who also appeared in court that day, almost missed their hearings after the group of supporters were prevented from entry.
“They almost didn’t let Samira and I in, and we had court,” Hickenbottom said Thursday, referring to city police on Tuesday.
Lexis Figuereo, Hickenbottom’s older brother and one of the main organizers in recent Saratoga protests, said he wanted to attend her hearing as a supportive family member; he was among those prevented from attending.
Kathy Manley – an attorney representing Hickenbottom, Sangare and other protesters – on Thursday said she was troubled by city police barring access to court, adding that something similar happened when she appeared on behalf of yet another protester in Saratoga City Court last month.
“[Supporters] were told at certain times that they couldn’t come in and were sometimes able to get in and it seemed a bit arbitrary because both times there were plenty of seats,” Manley said of supporters seeking access to the court proceedings. Manley said she counted at least 10 empty seats in the courtroom on Tuesday.
Manley said defendants have a right to public court proceedings to help ensure a fair process and that the public also has a right to access courts to ensure an open judicial process.
“If you have concerns about the fairness of the process, you want to be in there and see it, especially if your family member is in there,” she said. “It’s the defendant’s rights and also the public’s in the interest of transparency.”
Melanie Trimble, Capital Region chapter director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, on Thursday also expressed grave concern with the actions of Saratoga police officers and said attorneys with the organization were watching the department and considering all of the organization’s options to potentially take action against the department.
“I think the fact that the story has changed makes me suspect that they didn’t have a legitimate reason to bar these people from the courtroom,” Trimble said. “This is unacceptable to arbitrarily prevent people from entering public spaces and participating in the public process, and part of that is observing the courts.”
She also emphasized the importance of public monitoring of the court process as a safeguard against miscarriages of justice and said that Saratoga police have work to do to repair trust in the community, noting that there was a public perception the department was acting in a racist fashion.
“The way they are appearing to the public is negative and in order to protect people and keep people safe, they need to take it seriously and respond to it and do something about it,” Trimble said. “There’s no question if this happens again it will be very troublesome for the city.”