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Ninth Circuit Vacates Generalized Order to Shackle Pretrial Defendants, En Banc Review Granted

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in August 2015 that a full restraint policy imposed on pretrial detainees in non-jury proceedings “ought to be justified by a commensurate need.”

Before the Court were the consolidated appeals of four federal pretrial detainees who challenged a policy instituted by federal district courts in the Southern District of California. That policy, created at the behest of the U.S. Marshals Service, required pretrial detainees to be placed “in full shackle restraints for most appearances before a judge, including arraignments, unless a judge specifically requests the restraints be removed in a particular case.”

After the Marshals gave a presentation on July 8, 2013 regarding the need for the policy, federal judges in the Southern District responded with a letter stating they would defer to the Marshals’ recommendation. The letter said defendants would appear in court in full restraints for all non-jury proceedings with the exception of guilty pleas and sentencing hearings. Any judge could ask the Marshals to remove the restraints in a particular case.

With the new policy in place, defendants began to request to be unshackled; several appealed the denials, resulting in the consolidated appeal. The Ninth Circuit noted there was “no dispute that the Southern District has a higher volume of criminal defendants than most other districts, that violence among pretrial detainees has increased, and that there have been two incidents of in-court attacks on a fellow prisoner.”

Nonetheless, the appellate court held “[t]he law has long forbidden routine use of visible shackle during the guilt phase; it permits a state to shackle a criminal defendant only in the presence of a special need. This rule has deep roots in the common law.”

The Court of Appeals continued by saying that while it is not “forbidden” to have a policy that permits the routine use of shackles in non-jury proceedings, such a generalized policy must rest on an “adequate justification of its necessity.”

Although the Court had allowed such a generalized policy in United States v. Howard, 480 F.3d 1005 (9th Cir. 2007), the policy at issue in the instant case was more restrictive than that in Howard, which only allowed leg shackles at first appearances before a magistrate in a courtroom not designed to meet modern security challenges.

At issue here was a policy that required the use of full restraints before all judges at a wide range of non-jury proceedings in a new courthouse, which “carries a greater risk of interfering with a defendant’s constitutional rights.” Thus, a stronger justification for the policy was needed. The deference to the U.S. Marshals’ request was based on the Marshals’ purported “financial burdens and staffing issues.” That rationale did not carry the day.

“We hold only that in this case, judges should have provided greater justification for adopting such a policy,” the Court of Appeals concluded. The consolidated orders of the district courts were vacated and remanded; however, on August 5, 2016 the Ninth Circuit granted a petition to rehear the case en banc, and the appeal remains pending. See: United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, 798 F.3d 1204 (9th Cir. 2015), petition for rehearing granted. 

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Related legal case

United States v. Sanchez-Gomez