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United States v. Stier

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

April 13, 2018




         I. Introduction

         Pending before the court is the defendant's Motion to Seal Defendant Stier's Sentencing Memorandum [ECF No. 63]. For the reasons stated herein, the Motion is DENIED. The court DIRECTS the Clerk to not unseal the Sentencing Memorandum and the exhibits attached thereto. The court ORDERS that the defendant file an unsealed version of his sentencing memorandum and the exhibits attached thereto, with redactions in compliance with Local Rule of Criminal Procedure 49.1.1(a).

         II. Factual Background

         On August 21, 2017, the defendant, Kenneth Frederick Stier, pleaded guilty to Distributing and Attempting to Distribute Child Pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252A(1)(2), 2252A(b)(1). Written Plea of Guilty [ECF No. 48]. Thereafter, the court directed each party to file a sentencing memorandum “offer[ing] any evidence or argument related to a requested sentence or sentencing range in light of Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007).” Order [ECF No. 50]. Both parties timely filed sentencing memoranda under seal, and motioned for the court to keep the memoranda under seal indefinitely. Mot. by U.S. to Seal [ECF No. 62]; Mot. Seal Def. Stier's Sent. Mem. [ECF No. 63]. The court has already denied the government's motion. Order [ECF No. 71].

         In his motion, the defendant argues that the court should seal his sentencing memorandum and the exhibits attached thereto because they “reference confidential medical and personal family information, including information pertaining to a Child Protective Services investigation, not intended for public disclosure.” Mot. Seal Def. Stier's Sent. Mem. 1. The exhibits include: a report describing the results of a polygraph examination the defendant took, a Child Protective Services assessment, a forensic psychological evaluation, and several other generic documents relating to child pornography that do not specifically relate to the defendant. Id.

         On March 28, 2018, the defendant was sentenced to a term of 60 months imprisonment followed by a 20-year term of supervised release. J. [ECF No. 67]. This sentence was based, in part, on information it received from the parties' sentencing memoranda and the exhibits attached thereto.

         III. Applicable Law

         “Public access to the courts has long been a fundamental tenant of American democracy, helping to ensure that our system of justice functions fairly and that citizens can observe the actions of their government.” David S. Ardia, Privacy and Court Records: Online Access and the Loss of Practical Obscurity, 2017 U. Ill. L. Rev. 1385, 1387 (2017). Adhering to this ideology, “courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978) (footnote omitted). There are many benefits in allowing the public to inspect court documents and attend court hearings. For example, it “fosters the important values of quality, honesty and respect for our legal system.” In re Providence Journal Co., Inc., 293 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2002). It also “curb[s] judicial abuses, and [] provide[s] the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system, including a better perception of fairness.” Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 266 (4th Cir. 2014). Additionally, it allows the public to “judge the product of the courts in a given case.” Va. Dep't of State Police v. Wash. Post, 386 F.3d 567, 575 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting Columbus-Am. Discovery Grp. v. Atl. Mut. Ins. Co., 203 F.3d 291, 303 (4th Cir. 2000)).

         “The right of public access to documents or materials filed in a district court derives from two independent sources: the common law and the First Amendment.” Id. (citing Stone v. Univ. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 178, 180 (4th Cir. 1988)). “The distinction between the rights of access afforded by the common law and the First Amendment is ‘significant, ' because the common law ‘does not afford as much substantive protection to the interests of the press and the public as does the First Amendment.'” Id. (citations omitted). Thus, “the common law does not provide as much access to the press and public as does the First Amendment.” Id. (quoting In re State-Record Co., 917 F.2d 124, 127 (4th Cir. 1990)). Regardless of whether the right of access arises from the common law or the First Amendment, however, it may only be abrogated in “unusual circumstances.” Id. at 576.

         Under the common law, there is a presumption that the public has a right “to inspect and copy ‘all judicial records and documents.'” Id. at 575 (emphasis added) (quoting Stone, 855 F.2d at 180). This presumption “can [only] be rebutted if countervailing interests heavily outweigh the public interests in access.” Id. (quoting Rushford v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 846 F.2d 249, 253 (4th Cir. 1988)). When determining whether the presumption is rebutted, courts must apply a balancing test that weighs several factors “includ[ing] whether the records are sought for improper purposes, such as promoting public scandals or unfairly gaining a business advantage; whether release would enhance the public's understanding of an important historical event; and whether the public has already had access to the information contained in the records.” Id. (quoting In re Knight Publ. Co., 743 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984)). “The party seeking to overcome the presumption bears the burden of showing some significant interest that outweighs the presumption.” Rushford, 846 F.2d at 253.

         “In contrast to the common law, ‘the First Amendment guarantee of access has been extended only to particular judicial records and documents.'” Va. Dep't of State Police, 386 F.3d at 575 (quoting Stone, 855 F.2d at 180). If the First Amendment provides a right of access to documents, then the “district court may restrict access ‘only on the basis of a compelling governmental interest, and only if the denial is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.'” Id. (quoting Stone, 855 F.2d at 180). “The burden to overcome a First Amendment right of access rests on the party seeking to restrict access.” Id. (citing Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 15 (1986)).

         When deciding whether to limit public access to documents, courts must first “‘determine the source of the right of access with respect to each document, ' because ‘[o]nly then can it accurately weigh the competing interests at stake.'” Id. at 576 (citations omitted). Then, the court “must give the public notice of the request to seal and a reasonable opportunity to challenge the request; it must consider less drastic alternatives to sealing; and if it decides to seal it must state the reasons (and specific supporting findings) for its decision and the reasons for rejecting alternatives to sealing.” Id. This procedure “ensure[s] that the decision to seal materials will not be made lightly and that it will be subject to meaningful appellate review.” Id.

         IV. ...

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