One fundamental principle of the US criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence; that is, anyone accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This presumption has caused many to wonder why pretrial detainees are shackled in a court of law. In late May, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling barring lower courts from shackling defendants in a courtroom, regardless of whether a jury is present.
In Judge Alex Kozinski’s opinion, he suggested that “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.” Kozinski continued, saying that according to the Fifth Amendment the “right to be free of unwarranted restraints applies whether the proceeding is pretrial, trial, or sentencing, with a jury or without.”
This decision marks a change in common practice for security services like the Marshals Service who previously put defendants in full restraints during non-jury court proceedings. When a defendant is put in full restraints it “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,” according to the Ninth Circuit.
Resuscitating a Core Principle
The court’s decision aimed to re-evaluate the criminal justice system’s core principle: that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. In a well-crafted passage, Kozinski wrote, “while the phrase may be well-worn, it must also be worn well: We must guard against any gradual erosion of the principle it represents, whether in practice or appearance. This principle safeguards our most basic constitutional liberties, including the right to be free from unwarranted restraints.”
No More Blanket Policy
The ruling will impact courts like the Southern District of California which, until now, employed a blanket policy that applied to all defendants. Now if the government wants to restrain a defendant, “it must first justify the infringement with specific security needs as to that particular defendant.” Additionally, “Courts must decide whether the stated need for security outweighs the infringement on a defendant’s right.”
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Deck v. Missouri, the Ninth Circuit gave some indication as to how a court might determine when a defendant should be shackled. Essentially, the lower court suggested that the use of shackles is proper if “justified by an essential state interest.” State interest includes “the interest in courtroom security […] specific to the defendant on trial.” And to determine what constitutes a security risk, courts should consider factors “that courts have traditionally relied on.”
In his opinion, Judge Alex Kozinski emphasized that courts should take into account the individual circumstances of each case. Additionally, they should make sure “a compelling government purpose would be served and that shackles are the least restrictive means for maintaining security and order in the courtroom.” And finally, courts should not sidestep the ruling by “delegate[ing] this constitutional question to those who provide security.”
According to Reuben Cahn, executive director of Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc., the Ninth Circuit’s decision “preserves the public’s confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”
Not everyone agreed with the ruling. The court’s decision was split with 6 supporting and 5 dissenting. In her dissent, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta suggested that the majority neglected the Supreme Court’s input on the issue and put federal courts at risk with a “one-size-fits-all” policy.
But ultimately – in the words of Judge Mary M. Schroeder who wrote the concurring opinion – the dissent “ignores the degradation of human beings who stand before a court in chains without having been convicted.”