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Third Circuit Troubled by Courtroom Shackling of Prisoners

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals expressed concern about shackling prisoners during a civil jury trial. However, the court concluded that any error was harmless, given a cautionary jury instruction.

Anthony Sides was a prisoner at Pennsylvania's SCI Greene Correctional Facility, when he argued with guard James Cherry on April 20, 2002. Cherry entered Side's cell and assaulted him, causing chronic neck pain. After the attack, guards denied him medical attention for one month.

Sides brought federal suit against Cherry and several other guards and the case proceeded to trial. Throughout the trial, Sides was restrained in handcuffs and shackles and a jury returned a verdict for Defendants.

The Third Circuit recognized that the Supreme Court has instructed that "because shackling during trial is an 'inherently prejudicial practice,' it 'should be permitted only where justified by an essential state interest specific to each trial.'" Joining the Second, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Circuits, the Court agreed "that requiring a party in a civil trial to appear in shackles 'may well deprive him of due process unless the restraints are necessary."'

Although "the district court may rely 'heavily' on advice from court security officers," the Third Circuit instructed that "it 'bears the ultimate responsibility' of determining what restraints are necessary,' and 'may not delegate the decision to shackle an inmate to the marshals.'" Delegation of the shackling decision to court security officers is an abuse of discretion.

While the lower court "adopted the Deputy Marshal's advice," it was only a recommendation, the Court found. As such, the district judge did not abuse his discretion by delegating its authority to the Marshal.

Still, the Court was troubled that "the District Judge's inquiry . . . was limited to an ex parte communication with the Deputy Marshal," because it was impossible to know the full basis of the recommendation that was disclosed to the judge. "To the extent that the District Judge chose to defer to the Deputy Marshal's recommendation," it "should have done so on the record… allowing Sides an opportunity to challenge the rationale for that recommendation."

It was also unclear "whether the District Judge simply accepted the Deputy Marshal's recommendation without… balancing the need for physical restraints against potential prejudice to (Sides) in determining whether, and to what extent, physical restraints were required."

The Court was disturbed "that Sides testified while wearing handcuffs and leg irons, despite the reminder of Sides' counsel… to the Court of its prior direction to dispense with shackling during his testimony." As such, "where a district court has found certain preventive measures advisable to reduce the prejudice to a prisoner-plaintiff who is restrained during trial," the court instructed that "it should make every effort to ensure that those measures are actually (and consistently) applied."

Despite these deficiencies, the court determined that any error was harmless because the cautionary jury instruction the court gave "cured any prejudice to Sides. Not only did the Court direct the jury to disregard the restraints and decide the case 'based… solely on the evidence,' it sought to dispel any assumption on the jury's part that Sides was restrained because he was a dangerous person (by instructing that the restraints were `standard policy' for all inmates)."

Even so, the Third Circuit stressed, as other Circuits have, that it does "not endorse a general policy of parading inmate civil plaintiffs or their witnesses before the jury in shackles." Rather, "before ordering a prisoner-party or witness shackled at trial, district courts should hold a proceeding that allows the parties to offer argument bearing on the need for restraints as well as the extent of the restraints deemed necessary (if any)," the Court held. "Where genuine and material factual disputes bearing on these questions exist, courts need to conduct an evidentiary hearing to resolve them. They should weigh the need for restraints against the potential for prejudice, and impose no greater restraints than necessary to secure the courtroom. Finally, courts should take all practical measures, including cautionary instruction, to minimize the prejudice resulting from a party appearing in physical restraints." See: Sides v. Cherry, 609 F.3d 576 (3rd Cir, 2010).

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Related legal case

Sides v. Cherry