SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — By a single vote Wednesday, the en banc Ninth Circuit ruled that the Southern District of California’s policy of shackling pretrial detainees unconstitutionally violates defendants’ right to be treated “with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain.”
The 6-5 ruling by Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kosinski says the policy clashes with the right of a “presumptively innocent defendant” to be treated with respect in a public courtroom.
The Southern District of California enacted the policy in 2013 after its U.S. marshal asked to bring defendants to most court proceedings in handcuffs and leg shackles connected by a belly chain. The marshals said the policy was a security measure and would cut costs.
The Federal Defenders of San Diego challenged the policy, and the Ninth Circuit first found it unconstitutional in 2015.
“(T)he government has not pointed to the causes or magnitude of the asserted increased risk. Nor did the government try to demonstrate to the district judges, or now on appeal, that other less restrictive measures, such as increased staffing, would not suffice," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for a three-judge panel in August 2015.
Wednesday’s en banc decision mirrors that ruling, finding that the “constitutional liberties” of defendants must be protected.
“At the heart of our criminal justice system is the well-worn phrase, innocent until proven guilty,” Kozinski wrote for the court. “And while the phrase may be well-worn, it must also be worn well: We must guard against any gradual erosion of the principle it represents, whether in practice or appearance.”
Federal defender Reuben Cahn said the ruling protects defendants’ right to liberty.
“More important, it protects the dignity of each of our clients who enters the courtroom,” Cahn said in a statement. “In doing so, it preserves the public's confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”
Under the new ruling, before a defendant is shackled, the court must make an individual determination that shackling would serve a compelling purpose and is required to maintain order in the courtroom.
“This right to be free from unwarranted shackles no matter the proceeding respects our foundational principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty,” Kozinski wrote.
“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 court found that while the cases of the four named plaintiff-defendants who challenged the policy had ended and the policy was no longer in effect, the issue was not moot and was still a matter of controversy.
“The appealed policy could be reinstated at any time,” Kozinski wrote. “In fact, the government has indicated that it will seek to reinstate the policy unless we hold it unconstitutional.”
In dissent, Ninth Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta called the majority ruling a “one-size-fits-all” security policy.
“We should not be hearing this case at all, much less using it to announce a sweeping and unfounded new constitutional rule with potentially grave consequences for state and federal courthouses throughout this circuit,” Ikuta wrote.
The majority opinion and the dissent occupy equal space in the 69-page ruling in United States v. Sanchez-Gomez. Joining Ikuta in dissent were Judges O’Scannlain, Silverman, Graber and Callahan.
Joining Kosinski in the majority were Chief Judge Sidney Thomas, and Judges Reinhardt, Paez, Berzon and Schroeder. Schroeder wrote a brief concurring opinion “only to offer a brief comment about Judge Ikuta’s lengthy, well written dissent.”
Schroeder wrote that Ikuta’s dissent “lacks sensitivity to two of the most important components of our system of justice. The first is the dignity with which court proceedings should be conducted. The dissent thus ignores the degradation of human beings who stand before a court in chains without having been convicted, or in many instances, without even having been formally charged with any crime. Second, the dissent lacks sensitivity to the proper role of the judges as opposed to the Marshals Service in determining how a courtroom should be run. …
“Our court today correctly upholds the proper role of the judges, as opposed to the jailors, in the courtroom.”
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