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WA S.Ct. Holds Prisoner Witnesses Should Not Appear in Court in Prison Clothes or Shackles

WA S.Ct. Holds Prisoner Witnesses Should Not Appear in Court in Prison
Clothes or Shackles

The Washington state Supreme Court held that prisoner witnesses should not
appear before a jury in prison clothing, given the potential for prejudice
against criminal defendants and prisoner plaintiffs alike. This case arose
from the criminal prosecution of a defendant in a drug delivery case. When
the case went to trial, a prosecution witness and informant was brought to
testify against the defendant before a jury while dressed in a black and
white striped prison suit, handcuffed and with his ankles shackled. After
the witness' appearance the defendant moved for a mistrial, arguing that
the witness' appearance while shackled and in prison clothes, and
testifying about a criminal association with the defendant, was unfairly
prejudicial. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the ban on
shackling prisoner witnesses did not apply to witnesses for the government.
The defendant was convicted and then appealed. The state supreme court
denied relief and upheld the conviction.

In doing so, the court gave an exhaustive analysis of the issue of criminal
defendants, prisoner plaintiffs and their witnesses appearing before juries
in shackles and/or prison clothing. The court discussed state and federal
cases from around the country which held that it violates due process to
force prisoner plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses to appear bound or in
prison clothing. Trial courts have the discretion to order the shackling of
prisoners, but only after holding a hearing to consider courtroom security

In this case the state supreme court affirmed the defendant's conviction by
holding that he should have objected before the witness testified in prison
clothing. By waiting to object after the witness testified, or failing to
request a curative instruction, the defendant essentially waived the issue.
The court opined that a curative instruction would have resolved the issue
and that a new trial was not warranted. A spirited dissent argued that
since the right was clearly established, the trial court erred in not
granting a mistrial after the prosecution witness testified. This case is
useful for litigants researching the issue of prisoner witnesses,
defendants or plaintiffs appearing before juries in prison clothing or
shackles. See: State v. Rodriguez, 45 P.3d 541 (Wash. 2002).

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Related legal case

State v. Rodriguez

State v. Rodriguez, 146 Wash.2d 260, 45 P.3d 541 (Wash. 05/02/2002)

[1] Washington Supreme Court

[2] No. 70666-2

[3] 146 Wash.2d 260, 45 P.3d 541, 2002

[4] May 02, 2002


[6] SOURCE OF APPEAL: Appeal from Superior Court, Walla Walla County; 99-1-00117-3 Honorable Robert L. Zagelow, Judge.

[7] Counsel OF Record: Counsel for Petitioner(s): William D. Edelblute, Attorney At Law, 200 N Mullan Rd Ste 119, Spokane, WA 99206. Counsel for Respondent(s): Gabriel E. Acosta, Office of Pros Attorney Chief Deputy, 240 W Alder Ste 201, Walla Walla, WA 99362-2837.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barbara A. Madsen

[9] Oral Argument Date: 09/25/2001

[10] Concurring: Gerry L. Alexander, Charles Z. Smith, Charles W. Johnson, Faith E Ireland, Bobbe J. Bridge, Tom Chambers, Susan J. Owens. Dissenting: Richard B. Sanders

[11] EN BANC

[12] Marcelino Rodriguez seeks reversal of a Court of Appeals decision affirming his conviction on two counts of delivery of cocaine. Rodriguez contends that the appearance of a state witness in prison garb, shackles and handcuffs, while testifying to a criminal association with the defendant, was unfairly prejudicial and that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, holding that the judge was not required to conduct a security hearing before the appearance of a state witness in prison garb and shackles. We hold that the prohibition against physical restraints in the court room applies to all inmate witnesses. We affirm the conviction, however, because the defendant did not object to the witness's appearance and has failed to demonstrate that only a new trial could have cured the prejudice caused by that appearance.

[13] FACTS

[14] Marcelino Rodriguez was convicted of two counts of delivery of cocaine in May, 1999. The convictions arose out of two controlled buys arranged by the police through a paid informant, Arturo Suarez. On two separate occasions during the spring of 1999, Suarez contacted Rodriguez in order to purchase cocaine. Suarez told Rodriguez each time that he wanted to buy an 'eight-ball,' or four grams of cocaine. On each occasion the police then gave Suarez prerecorded money with which to make the drug buy. Following each meeting with Rodriguez, Suarez returned and gave the officers two grams of cocaine he said he had purchased from Rodriguez. The amount on each occasion was two grams less than the four grams expected when purchasing an eight-ball.

[15] According to Arnulfo Ojeda, a State witness, Rodriguez contacted him prior to each meeting with Suarez to purchase cocaine for the planned transaction. At the scene of the second meeting, officers observed Rodriguez enter a vehicle to make what officers believed was a drug buy. Officers followed the car in which they had seen Rodriguez and later determined that it was driven by Ojeda. Police obtained a search warrant for Ojeda's residence and during the search the officers found two of the prerecorded $20 bills that Suarez had given to Rodriguez during the second drug buy.

[16] When the state called Ojeda as a witness, officers brought him into the courtroom wearing a black and white striped prison suit, handcuffs, and his ankles were bound by shackles. Ojeda testified that he had been charged with delivering cocaine to Rodriguez. He also testified that he had pleaded guilty to delivering the cocaine later purchased by Suarez as part of a plea agreement in which the prosecutor agreed to recommend deportation rather than incarceration.

[17] Immediately following Ojeda's testimony, Rodriguez moved for a mistrial arguing that the witness's appearance in prison garb and shackles while testifying to a criminal association with the defendant was unfairly prejudicial. The trial court denied the motion reasoning that prohibitions on shackling prisoners do not apply to State's witnesses. Rodriguez appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the trial judge was not required to conduct a security hearing and that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in denying Rodriguez's motion for a new trial.


[19] The issue in this case is whether the trial judge erred when he denied Mr. Rodriguez's motion for a new trial following the testimony of a State's witness who appeared in court while shackled and dressed in jail garb. Before we can answer that question, however, we must decide whether the prohibitions against physical restraints in the courtroom apply equally to all inmate witnesses. It is a well settled rule that absent some compelling reason for physical restraint, defendants may appear in court free of prison garb and shackles. See Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 504, 96 S. Ct. 1691, 48 L. Ed. 2d 126 (1976); State v. Hartzog, 96 Wn.2d 383, 635 P.2d 694 (1981); Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 90 S. Ct. 1057, 25 L. Ed. 2d 353 (1970); State v. Finch, 137 Wn.2d 792, 975 P.2d 967 (1999); State v. Elmore, 139 Wn.2d 250, 985 P.2d 289 (1999), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 837 (2000); State v. Hutchinson, 135 Wn.2d 863, 959 P.2d 1061 (1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1157 (1999); State v. Breedlove, 79 Wn. App. 101, 900 P.2d 586 (1995). This rule has also been extended to defense inmate witnesses by every court to consider the issue. See Hartzog, 96 Wn.2d at 399; Wilson v. McCarthy, 770 F.2d 1482 (9th Cir. 1985); State v. Simmons, 26 Wn. App. 917, 614 P.2d 1316 (1980); U.S. v. Brooks, 125 F.3d 484 (7th Cir. 1997); Woods v. Thieret, 5 F.3d 244 (7th Cir. 1993); United States v. Amaro, 816 F.2d 284 (7th Cir. 1987); Harrell v. Israel, 672 F.2d 632 (7th Cir. 1982); Kennedy v. Cardwell, 487 F.2d 101, 105 (6th Cir. 1973); United States v. Roustio, 455 F.2d 366 (7th Cir. 1972).

[20] This court and the Court of Appeals have addressed the issue of witness restraints generally in two cases, Hartzog, 96 Wn.2d 383 and Simmons, 26 Wn. App. 917. In Hartzog, this court held that a blanket security order applying generally to all inmate witnesses constitutes an abuse of discretion. The court began by recognizing that, historically, restraints are an extreme measure to be used only when necessary to prevent escape, injury to persons in the courtroom, or to prevent disorder. Hartzog, 96 Wn.2d at 398. Then the court stated that '{w}hile a shackled witness may not directly affect the presumption of innocence, it seems plain that there may be some inherent prejudice to defendant, as the jury may doubt the witness' credibility.' Id. at 399 (citing Kennedy, 487 F.2d at 105 n.5). Balanced against the defendant's right to a fair trial, the Hartzog court noted, is the broad discretion afforded the trial court judge to provide for order and security in the courtroom. Id. at 401. Accordingly, this court adopted standards set forth by the Court of Appeals in Hartzog for trial courts to consider when faced with physical restraint decisions: '{A}ge and physical attributes; his past record; . . . threats to harm others or cause a disturbance; self-destructive tendencies; the risk of mob violence or of attempted revenge by others; . . . the nature and physical security of the courtroom; and the adequacy and availability of alternative remedies.' Hartzog, 96 Wn.2d at 400 (quoting State v. Tolley, 290 N.C. 349, 368, 226 S.E.2d 353 (1976)).

[21] Notably, the court did not distinguish between the restraint of defense and prosecution witnesses but ruled that a trial court must engage in a case by case analysis to determine if shackling of an inmate witness is necessary. Hartzog, Wn.2d at 400. The holding was neither explicitly limited to defense witnesses nor explicitly included witnesses for the State. Rather, the court focused on the need for the trial court to exercise its discretion in determining the necessity and the extent of security measures to protect the process. Id. at 400. Similar to Hartzog, the trial court in Simmons issued a blanket order that all inmate witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense would be shackled at Simmons' trial. Following this court's decision in Hartzog, the Court of Appeals reversed the order and held that 'until a record is made, those inmate witnesses called by either the State or the defense cannot be physically restrained.'*fn1 Simmons, 26 Wn. App. at 921.

[22] The State argues that our analysis in Hartzog does not support a prohibition against physical restraint of all witnesses in the courtroom and that Simmons was wrongly decided. We disagree.