Ruling says Calif. courts cannot routinely shackle defendants

Courts cannot routinely shackle defendants "like a bear on a chain" and must decide on a case-by-case basis whether the restraints are necessary to prevent violence or escape

By Sudhin Thanawala 
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Courts cannot routinely shackle defendants "like a bear on a chain" and must instead decide on a case-by-case basis whether the restraints are necessary to prevent violence or escape, a divided federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco previously ruled that defendants have a right to be free of shackles and handcuffs in the presence of jurors in part to maintain the presumption of innocence and prevent bias.

The ruling Wednesday extended that right to all court proceedings with or without a jury.

"Criminal defendants, like any other party appearing in court, are entitled to enter the courtroom with their heads held high," 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the 6-5 decision.

At issue was the practice of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California of shackling almost all defendants during pretrial hearings.

The court — based in San Diego — implemented the policy in 2013 after the U.S. Marshals Service highlighted security concerns.

Defendants — regardless of their individual characteristics — appeared before judges in leg shackles and handcuffs connected by a chain to a waistband, according to the 9th Circuit opinion.

It said one defendant had a fractured wrist but appeared in court wearing full restraints. Another who uses a wheelchair was also shackled.

A majority of judges on the 9th Circuit panel said the practice is unconstitutional and courts cannot delegate decisions on using shackles to those who provide security, such as the U.S. Marshals Service.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California, which defended the shackling policy, had no comment, spokeswoman Kelly Thornton said.

A three-judge 9th Circuit panel invalidated the policy in 2015, saying the Southern District court had failed to provide adequate justification for it. The U.S. attorney's office asked a larger panel of judges to review the case.

The ruling protects the right to liberty that has been part of the law since before the nation's founding, said Reuben Cahn, executive director of Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc., which challenged the shackling policy.

Cahn said he knew of a few other federal district courts that had similar policies.

In a dissenting opinion, 9th Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta said the majority decision ignored U.S. Supreme Court direction on the issue, split with other federal appeals courts and put federal district courts at risk.

In 2013, there were two separate assaults involving inmates inside courtrooms in the Southern District. In addition, the U.S. Marshals Service determined it couldn't predict which detainees would present a danger.

Additionally, the agency dealt with a high volume of criminal defendants with reduced resources for courtroom protection, Ikuta said.

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