There’s not much talk these days about prisoners’ rights. Most of the crime quotes from the pundits seem intent on fomenting fear, mostly of immigrants and non-whites. But what happens after an arrest? How are suspects in custody treated? A book could be written on the subject, but we’re focusing now on the mechanics of bringing a suspect to court for an appearance before a judge.
We’ve all seen the pictures. It’s generally a person in an orange jumpsuit wearing “shackles.” The shackles consist of handcuffs, with a chain around the person’s waist, leading to leg restraints. It’s demeaning, of course. And uncomfortable. And it portrays a pretrial detainee – that’s someone who’s been arrested but hasn’t been convicted – as a hardened criminal. All of which brings us to a decision this spring by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case entitled United States v. Sanchez-Gomez.
The case involved a challenge to the policy in California federal courts that all pretrial detainees are shackled during court appearances. The policy began several years ago, and you might think it came from a judicial source. After all, the judges run the courtrooms, right? Not so in this case. The policy was the brainchild of the Unites States Marshalls, who decided, on their own, that this was necessary. The challenge came from the Office of the Public Defender in San Diego.
In its decision, the Ninth Circuit noted that each of these defendants is presumptively innocent. Furthermore, a blanket policy of shackling all defendants assumes that shackles are necessary for every defendant, and ignores the issue of whether they are warranted in a particular case. The court ruled that before a pretrial detainee may be brought into court in shackles, an individualized decision must be made that shackling serves a “compelling governmental purpose” and that it represents the least restrictive means of maintaining security and order in the courtroom. The current practice, the court said, was unconstitutional, as was the delegation of authority to the U.S. Marshall’s Service.
But the federal judges in Arizona, reading what they found to be a loophole in the ruling, decided not to follow it. The Ninth Circuit said this was improper, and chided the district court judges for disregarding a published opinion of the court of appeals. It also issued an emergency injunction barring the practice of universal shackling.
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