Public Blocked From Hearing In Lawsuit Against Phoenix Police

Published: Tuesday, May 4, 2021 - 8:37am
Updated: Tuesday, May 4, 2021 - 5:42pm
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A major hearing in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Phoenix was held behind closed courtroom doors Tuesday morning.

The public was blocked from the case involving a disabled Black man who died in an encounter with the city’s police officers in 2017.

First Amendment lawyer Dan Barr said there’s a test for judges to follow before closing a courtroom. There must be a strong chance that an open hearing would hurt the defense in a way that couldn’t be fixed, a no-less-drastic alternative to barring the public, and a strong chance doing so will stop harm to the defense.

“You know, I question here whether there is a substantial probability of irreparable damage to the defendant’s fair trial right in a civil case,” Barr said.

In civil cases involving police, courtrooms are rarely sealed for an undercover officer or confidential informant to testify, said Barr.

Court records say Muhammad Muhaymin died in 2017 after Phoenix police arrested him on an old warrant and wouldn’t let him call family to pick up his service dog. Multiple officers allegedly twice put their weight on Muhaymin’s body, including after he’d been restrained.

“I don’t believe there is anything in the record that deserves sealing. Nothing at all to be honest,” said attorney David Chami, who represents Muhaymin’s sister, who was his legal guardian. “But I am not in a position at this point to argue with the Court about a case that I think is very important. And again, I’m disappointed.”

Judge Susan Brnovich ordered the hearing closed because the written arguments tied to it are also sealed.

Court records should only be kept from the public for a compelling reason. But a request by Phoenix to seal certain documents just cites confidential materials, said attorney Larry Wulkan, partner at Stinson law firm.

“It is extraordinary for the court to hear arguments on a motion for summary judgement on a closed-court session. It looks like the city of Phoenix has something to hide,” he said.

A lawyer at a private firm representing the city of Phoenix and 10 police officers did not respond to a request for comment on the closing of Tuesday’s hearing.

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