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9th Circuit: Courts Cannot Shackle All Defendants

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Three defendants in cases pending before the federal district court in the state of Arizona won their appeal to the Ninth Circuit over the district court's routine shackling of criminal defendants that appear in the courtroom. The IN RE: Rodrigo ZERMENO-GOMEZ decision, however, is less about shackling and more about judicial procedure.

A published opinion from the Ninth Circuit in May 2017 requires district courts to conduct an individualized analysis to determine whether a criminal defendant needs to be shackled in the courtroom. The three defendants that filed the appeal to the Ninth Circuit did not have that individual analysis conducted, but were forced to appear in shackles.

The Circuit Precedent That Binds

Central to the decision issued in Zermeno-Gomez was the principle that the lower courts in a federal circuit are bound by the decisions issued by the circuit court of appeals. The district court that refused to follow the circuit decision reasoned that it was not necessary given that a stay of the order had been put into effect pending further appeals.

However, as the Ninth Circuit made exceedingly clear, just because a decision has been stayed, that does not mean the order will not hold precedential value. In fact, the appellate court pointed to several similar instances where the lower courts were bound by a published opinion that was subject to a stay.

Innocent Until Shackles Proven Necessary

At the heart of this controversy is the big constitutional principle of "innocent until proven guilty." Having a criminal defendant appear in shackles is such a strong indicator of guilt, that it is hard to see how it is not prejudicial, ever. But, as the court notes, there are times when it is required, but shackling defendants should not be the default setting. Rather, shackling should only be done when justifiably necessary for safety purposes.

As noted by a local Arizona news source, when it comes to shackling, the court specifically stated that:

Before a presumptively innocent defendant may be shackled, the court must make an individualized decision that a compelling governmental purpose would be served and that shackles are the least restrictive means for maintaining security and order in the courtroom.

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