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Court: No More Routine Shackling of Criminal Defendants

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

For better or worse, the presumption of innocence rests in large part on appearances. And the appearance of a defendant in court, shackled "like a bear on a chain," can undermine that presumption. Therefore, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that lower courts may no longer routinely of shackle all pretrial detainees in the courtroom, even if there is no jury present.

Instead, courts will need to make assessments on a case-by-case basis as to whether a defendant must be shackled. So what will that analysis entail? And what will that mean for criminal defendants?

Defendant in Chains

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Fifth Amendment provides criminal defendants the "right to be free of unwarranted restraints applies whether the proceeding is pretrial, trial, or sentencing, with a jury or without." Previously, courts allowed security services like the Marshals Service to produce all defendants in full restraints for most non-jury proceedings in court. "Full restraints," as defined by the court, means that "a defendant's hands are closely handcuffed together, these handcuffs are connected by chain to another chain running around the defendant's waist, and the defendant's feet are shackled and chained together."

The court was emphatic in its rejection of routine shackling:

We must take seriously how we treat individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system -- from how our police interact with them on the street to how they appear in the courtroom. How the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public's perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling and "perp walks" are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise.

Stated Need for Shackling

While many courts, including in this case the Southern District of California, permitted blanket shackling policies in the past, that rule has now changed. Going forward, "if the government seeks to shackle a defendant, it must first justify the infringement with specific security needs as to that particular defendant." In doing so, courts are required to decide "whether the stated need for security outweighs the infringement on a defendant's right."

Supreme Court bans the use of shackles "unless that use is 'justified by an essential state interest' -- such as the interest in courtroom security -- specific to the defendant on trial." When considering a request for shackling, a court may "take into account the factors that courts have traditionally relied on in gauging potential security problems and the risk of escape at trial."

The Ninth Circuit urged that courts "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," and was clear that courts could not delegate these decisions to law enforcement officers or security personnel.

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