WASHINGTON (CN) – Full-body shackling of pretrial detainees had been ruled unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the ruling Monday based on the release of those who challenged the policy.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the unanimous court. “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 San Diego, federal defendants have been making their court appearances while wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, connected by a belly chain, since 2013.
Though U.S. marshals have pointed to improved security and lower costs, a challenge by Rene Sanchez-Gomez and three other criminal defendants led the Ninth Circuit to strike the policy down as unconstitutional in 2015.
Before that decision came down, however, each of the underlying criminal cases had already concluded. Roberts noted Monday that Sanchez-Gomez pleaded guilty to felony misuse of a passport, and two of the other challengers entered pleas to the offenses for which they were charged as well. The charges against the fourth plaintiff were dismissed meanwhile pursuant to a deferred-prosecution agreement.
Despite how these cases concluded, however, the en banc Ninth Circuit determined last year that the “class-like relief appeals” sought by the challengers saved them from mootness.
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court was unanimous that this was not the case.
“The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure establish for criminal cases no vehicle comparable to the FLSA collective action, much less the class action,” Roberts wrote, using an abbreviation for the Fair Labor Standards Act. “And we have never permitted criminal defendants to band together to seek prospective relief in their individual criminal cases on behalf of a class. As we said when declining to apply nonparty preclusion outside the formal class action context, courts may not ‘recognize … a common-law kind of class action’ or ‘create de facto class actions at will.’”
Roberts likewise disagreed with the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that a Court of Appeals could exercise “supervisory control of the District Courts” through their “discretionary power to issue writs of mandamus.”
“There is no sign in our scant supervisory mandamus precedents that such cases are exempt from the normal mootness rules,” Roberts wrote.
Another maneuver attempted by the challengers to save their case was that the possibility that their claims were capable of repetition qualified as an “exception to the mootness doctrine.”
Like Sanchez-Gomez’s plea to passport misuse, Moises Patricio-Guzman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor illegal entry into the United States.
In support of their claims, the pair pointed to a 2013 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found that 38 percent of those convicted and sentenced for an illegal entry or illegal re-entry offense “were deported and subsequently illegally re-entered at least one time.”
“Respondents emphasize the economic and familial pressures that often compel individuals such as Sanchez-Gomez and Patricio-Guzman to repeatedly attempt to enter the United States,” Roberts wrote. “And respondents note that both men, after their release, actually did cross the border into the United States, were apprehended again, and were charged with new illegal entry offenses. All this, respondents say, adds up to a sufficient showing that Sanchez-Gomez and Patricio-Guzman satisfy the ‘capable of repetition’ requirement.”
Though the Ninth Circuit was not aware of Sanchez-Gomez and Patricio-Guzman’s subsequent re-entries, Roberts declined to remand the case for consideration of this evidence.
“Sanchez-Gomez and Patricio-Guzman … are ‘able — and indeed required by law’ — to refrain from further criminal conduct,” he wrote. “Their personal incentives to return to the United States, plus the elevated rate of recidivism associated with illegal entry offenses, do not amount to an inability to obey the law. We have consistently refused to find the case or controversy requirement satisfied where, as here, the litigants simply ‘anticipate violating lawful criminal statutes.’”
Roberts applied the same logic to deny prospective relief.
“Respondents argue that Sanchez-Gomez and Patricio-Guzman meet the second prong because they will again violate the law, be apprehended, and be returned to pretrial custody,” he wrote. “But we have consistently refused to ‘conclude that the case-or-controversy requirement is satisfied by’ the possibility that a party ‘will be prosecuted for violating valid criminal laws.’ We have instead ‘assume[d] that [litigants] will conduct their activities within the law and so avoid prosecution and conviction as well as exposure to the challenged course of conduct.’”