No doubt the privilege of personally confronting witnesses may be lost by consent or at times even by misconduct. Although courts must indulge every reasonable presumption against the loss of constitutional rights, a defendant can lose his right to be present at trial if, after he has been warned by the judge that he will be removed if he continues his disruptive behavior, he nevertheless insists on conducting himself in a manner so disorderly, disruptive, and disrespectful of the court that his trial cannot be carried on with him in the courtroom. Once lost, the right to be present can, of course, be reclaimed as soon as the defendant is willing to conduct himself consistently with the decorum and respect inherent in the concept of courts and judicial proceedings.
After defendant's conviction for armed robbery had been affirmed, defendant filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court and alleged he had been deprived of his constitutional right to remain present throughout his trial. The district court found no constitutional violation. On appeal, the appellate court reversed, holding that a trial court could never expel an accused from his trial. The court granted certiorari to determine whether defendant could claim the benefit of the constitutional right to remain in the courtroom while engaging in speech and conduct so disruptive that it was exceedingly difficult to carry on the trial.
May a criminal defendant lose his constitutional right to remain present throughout his trial due to his ongoing disruptive conduct?
The court held that defendant could lose his right to be present at trial if such conduct persisted even after a trial judge's warning that he would be removed if he continued his disruptive behavior. Defendant could have reclaimed the right to be present as soon as he was willing to conduct himself properly. Thus, the trial court did not err in removing him, which was one of three constitutionally permissible ways for a trial court to handle an obstreperous defendant.