At least one US federal court, the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is handling entire cases on a "secret docket" with no public record of convictions, pleas, or prison sentences. The practice was unearthed only by a combination of clerical error and lawyerly doggedness in two cases, one involving a strained alleged link to terrorism and one involving a high-level Colombian drug trafficker, and is now being challenged before both the US Supreme Court and the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
"We don't have secret justice in this country," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has filed briefs with the two courts on behalf of more than two dozen media and legal organizations.
One case involves Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel, 34, of Deerfield Beach, Florida, who was arrested for violating his student visa in October 2001. Bellahouel was accused by the FBI of being the waiter for two of the September 11 hijackers at a restaurant in Delray Beach and possibly being seen with a third hijacker at a nearby movie theater. After his arrest, he and his case vanished into a black hole. Bellahouel was detained at the Krome detention center in Dade County until he was released on an immigration bond in March 2002, but neither his initial conviction nor his appeals appeared on any public record until he appealed to the US Supreme Court. Bellahouel had appealed to open his files to the 11th US Circuit of Appeals, but that motion was denied -- secretly.
Attorneys in that case are under a gag order and cannot comment. US Solicitor General Ted Olsen has submitted a brief to the Supreme Court defending the secrecy. It, too, is sealed. Bellahouel's case has a "terrorism" connection and thus could be defended as part of the government's informal "war on terrorism." But the same sort of secrecy has also been used in at least one drug case in the Miami federal court.
The Reporters Committee is also challenging secret court proceedings related to the conviction of Colombian drug trafficker Fabio Ochoa Vasquez. In that case, Nicolas Bergonzoli, a Colombian drug smuggler, accepted a plea bargain and was sent to prison with no public record of any court proceedings. His case, which originated with a Connecticut indictment in 1995, was transferred to Miami in 1999, when it promptly vanished from the record until Ochoa's defense attorneys dug it up four years later, as the prosecution was resting its case.
It is Ochoa's appeal of that conviction to which the Reporters Committee and a raft of other groups, including media heavyweights such as the New York Times and Washington Post, have submitted a friend of the court brief.
"In recent months, it has become evident that the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida maintains a dual, separate docket of public and non-public cases," Dalglish wrote in that brief. "A free and open society cannot tolerate hiding federal court proceedings from public view. Collectively, the repeated pattern of secrecy in the proceedings below paints a picture of a court that conducts its business with a casual disregard for the public's First Amendment right of access to criminal judicial proceedings."
The Ochoa amicus brief is
The motion to intervene in
the Bellahouel case can be found at:
The amicus brief filed in
that case is at: