Orange County sheriff to appeal judge’s ruling that inmates not be shackled at courthouse

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said he will appeal a judge’s recent ruling ordering his department to stop its blanket policy of shackling inmates at the waist inside county courthouses, publicly attacking the move as a “significant judicial overreach.”

Last week, in response to several requests from defense attorneys, O.C. Superior Court Judge Kathleen Roberts issued a ruling saying the Sheriff’s Department’s policy of shackling inmates, often for hours, as they await court appearances “demeans the dignity of the court process.”

“It is impermissible,” the judge wrote, “to allow a policy of blanket shackling of inmates in holding cells.”

Roberts’ ruling, however, isn’t an absolute ban on the practice. Sheriff’s officials can still use waist restraints while transporting inmates from jail to the courthouse, Roberts wrote, and can make case-by-case requests to judges for certain inmates to be restrained even in the courthouse.


In her written ruling barring the blanket practice of shackling all inmates, Roberts highlighted the case of an inmate who had submitted a court declaration saying that after she was put in shackles, she’d had a “mild panic attack” and struggled to breathe.

“I began to panic because the waist chain was tight,” the inmate wrote, according to a portion of the declaration included in the judge’s ruling.

The inmate said that her handcuffs were attached to the chain around her waist, limiting her movement, and that she’d been menstruating and had held in her urine for several hours out of concern that she wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom without help, the declaration reads.

“I was both uncomfortable and self-conscious,” the inmate wrote. “It was degrading.”


Being shackled in a courthouse holding cell could affect an inmate’s ability to freely discuss the intricacies of a case with their lawyer, including discussions of plea bargains, Roberts wrote in her ruling. The judge added that she had not been convinced by county counsel’s argument that shackling all detainees was the “least restrictive means to accomplish security goals.”

On Wednesday, two days after the ruling, the sheriff tweeted a scathing response, saying Roberts had committed “significant judicial overreach.”

The department’s across-the-board shackling policy, he argued, is necessary to keep inmates and staff safe.

“When inmates of different classification levels are mixed,” Barnes said, “it is necessary to use waist restraints as a means of preventing assaults and other nefarious activities.”


The sheriff argued that the ruling resulted from a “false narrative” pushed by defense attorneys, who had “grossly distorted the restrictiveness of the waist restraints.” Barnes contends that footage of shackled inmates indicates that they can eat, use the restroom and blow their nose while restrained.

In his statement, Barnes also seemed to question the judge’s impartiality, mentioning that, in the past, she had been affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Judge Roberts,” he wrote, “made a decision for the entire Orange County Superior Court system that was very much consistent with the ACLU’s anti-incarceration agenda.”

Barnes said in his statement that he plans to appeal the judge’s order.


The legal back-and-forth marks the latest battle for a department — and a jail system — that in recent years has been mired by an informant scandal that jeopardized some criminal cases and drew scrutiny from state and federal investigations.

In early 2016, three inmates accused of violent crimes escaped from Men’s Central Jail, the county’s largest lock-up, by cutting through a metal screen in their fourth-floor cell, crawling through a plumbing tunnel and rappelling from the roof of the maximum-security jail with a rope of knotted bed sheets.