Shackled in Court

Image result for shackled defendants in courtroom

In United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a lower federal court’s policy of routinely shackling all defendants in the courtroom was unconstitutional.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, the judges of the Southern District of California approached the U.S. Marshals Service and requested “a district-wide policy of allowing the Marshals Service to bring all in-custody defendants in full restraints for most non-jury proceedings.” “Full restraints” means that a defendant’s hands are closely handcuffed together, these handcuffs are connected by chain to another chain running around the defendant’s waist, and the defendant’s feet are shackled and chained together.

Starting on the first day of the policy’s implementation, the Federal Defenders of San Diego objected to the routine use of shackles and requested that each defendant’s shackles be removed. The judges routinely denied the requests, relying on the Marshals Service’s general security concerns. The judges also pointed to increasing security threats from what they viewed as changing demographics and increasing case loads in their district.

The shackling was the same regardless of a defendant’s individual characteristics. One defendant had a fractured wrist but appeared in court wearing full restraints. Nevertheless, the judge denied her motion to remove the restraints, Another defendant was vision-impaired. One of his hands was free of restraint so he could use his cane, but his other hand was shackled and secured to a chain around his waist and his legs were shackled together. His objection to the restraints was also denied.  And another defendant was shackled despite being brought into court in a wheelchair due to her “dire and deteriorating” health. The court “noted” her objection to the shackles and denied the defendant’s motion to remove the shackles.

Defendants appealed these denials to the district court and also filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the district-wide policy. The district courts denied all relief. All four cases were consolidated for review of the policy’s constitutionality.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

This 9th Circuit said that under the Fifth Amendment, no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again that “liberty from bodily restraint always has been recognized as the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause from arbitrary governmental action. Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 316 (1982).

Liberty from bodily restraint includes the right to be free from shackles in the courtroom, reasoned the court. Also, the right to be free from unwarranted shackles no matter the proceeding respects our founding principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

“The principle isn’t limited to juries or trial proceedings,” said the Court. It also includes the perception of any person who may walk into a public courtroom, as well as those of the jury, the judge and court personnel:

“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain . . . The fact that the proceeding is non-jury does not diminish the degradation a prisoner suffers when needlessly paraded about a courtroom, like a dancing bear on a lead, wearing belly chains and manacles.”

The Court further reasoned that the most visible and public manifestation of our criminal justice system is the courtroom. “Courtrooms are palaces of justice, imbued with a majesty that reflects the gravity of proceedings designed to deprive a person of liberty or even life.” It reasoned that a member of the public who wanders into a criminal courtroom must immediately perceive that it is a place where justice is administered with due regard to individuals whom the law presumes to be innocent. That perception cannot prevail if defendants are marched in like convicts on a chain gang. “Both the defendant and the public have the right to a dignified, inspiring and open court process. Thus, innocent defendants may not be shackled at any point in the courtroom unless there is an individualized showing of need.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that it has a long tradition of giving correctional officials a wide berth in maintaining security within their own facilities. “But we don’t have a tradition of deferring to correctional or law enforcement officers as to the treatment of individuals appearing in public courtrooms.”

Here, in the courtroom, law enforcement officers have no business proposing policies for the treatment of parties as a class. Insofar as they have information pertaining to particular defendants, they may, of course, bring it to the court’s attention. But a blanket policy applied to all defendants infuses the courtroom with a prison atmosphere. The Marshals Service should not have proposed it and the judges should not have paid heed.

“We must take seriously how we treat individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system—from how our police interact with them on the street to how they appear in the courtroom. How the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public’s perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling and “perp walks” are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise. We must treat people with respect and dignity even though they are suspected of a crime.”

Finally, the Court reasoned that the Constitution enshrines a fundamental right to be free of unwarranted restraints. “Thus, we hold that if the government seeks to shackle a defendant, it must first justify the infringement with specific security needs as to that particular defendant.” Courts must decide whether the stated need for security outweighs the infringement on a defendant’s right. This decision cannot be deferred to security providers or presumptively answered by routine policies, said the Court. “All of these requirements apply regardless of a jury’s presence or whether it’s a pretrial, trial or sentencing proceeding. Criminal defendants, like any other party appearing in court, are entitled to enter the courtroom with their heads held high.”

My Opinion? Excellent decision. Unless a defendant is particularly dangerous to themselves or others, there is simply no reason to parade them around the court like animals. It’s degrading, demoralizing and reduces respect for the criminal justice system; especially if defendants are not yet found guilty for crimes.