Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Innocent until shackled

When you think of the term innocent, what image comes to mind? If you are like me, you think babies or puppies (maybe kittens if you’re a cat person). The thing I have never associated with that word was full body shackles. In a court system that stands on the phrase “Innocent until Proven Guilty,” one would assume that innocent people should not be brought to court in full body shackles. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has just taken on this problem in United States v. Sanchez-Gomez.

Four defendants petitioned for writs of mandamus to challenge a district wide policy for shackling all pretrial detainees without any form of individual determinations. Although they did not get the mandamus relief (mainly because the policy was not in effect at the time), the Court of Appeals did slap the district court’s hands a bit. 
Image result for chained bearThe policy in question came about as a recommendation from the US Marshals Service. The district court deferred to the Marshals’ recommendation, and determined that all pretrial detainees would appear in shackles. The en banc court applied Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103 (1975), to exercise its supervisory power. Even though all of the defendants’ cases had ended and the policy was no longer in effect, the en banc court seemed to be on a mission to send a message. “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’s bottom-line holding:
We now clarify the scope of the right and hold that it applies whether the proceeding is pretrial, trial, or sentencing, with a jury or without. Before a presumptively innocent defendant may be shackled, the court must make an individualized decision that a compelling government purpose would be served and that shackles are the least-restrictive means for maintaining security and order in the courtroom. Courts cannot delegate this constitutional question to those who provide security, such as the U.S. Marshals service. Nor can courts institute routine shackling policies reflecting a presumption that shackles are necessary in every case.
Interestingly enough, this decision not only had a few dissenters but also creates a circuit split. The dissent’s main problem was the lack of authority to make this decision. They argued that the case was moot and did not qualify for an exception. All in all, they thought the majority had overstepped its boundaries.
Given the new circuit split, maybe the Supreme Court will take up this cause and send a message to the country that shackles taint the appearance of innocence.

---Contributed by Doretta Goolsby, UMKC Law 2018

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