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Supreme Court Reverses Ninth Circuit Ruling Banning Pretrial Full-body Shackling

by Derek Gilna

In an opinion issued May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that banned the full-body shackling of pretrial detainees, based on the issue of mootness. The decision, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, noted that the “question presented is whether the appeals were saved from mootness either because the defendants sought ‘class-like relief’ in a ‘functional class action,’ or because the challenged practice was ‘capable of repetition, yet evading review.’”

Since 2013, federal criminal defendants in San Diego, California, including pretrial detainees who are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, have been subjected to full-body shackles in non-jury proceedings. The restraints involve “a defendant’s hands [being] 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.”

The Supreme Court noted that all the plaintiffs in the case had already pleaded guilty, and rejected the Ninth Circuit’s argument that “class-like relief measures” did not prevent mootness of their claims. “The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure establish for criminal cases no vehicle comparable to the [Fair Labor Standards Act] collective action, much less the class action,” the Court stated, adding, “we have never permitted criminal defendants to band together to seek prospective relief in their individual criminal cases on behalf of a class.”

Further, the Supreme Court declined to address the merits of the claims related to full-body shackling. “None of this is to say that those who wish to challenge the use of full physical restraints in the Southern District [of California] lack any avenue for relief,” the Court wrote. “In the course of this litigation the parties have touched upon several possible options. Because we hold this case moot, we take no position on the question.”

In a footnote, the Supreme Court added, “Shortly after the panel decision in this case, the Southern District altered its policy to eliminate the routine use of full restraints in pretrial proceedings. The Government represents, however, that the Southern District intends to reinstate its policy once it is no longer bound by the decision of the Court of Appeals.” See: United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, 200 L.Ed.2d 792 (2018); 2018 U.S. LEXIS 2804. 

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Related legal case

United States v. Sanchez-Gomez