Shackles an affront to 'dignity and decorum' of court, appeals panel rules

An appeals court Tuesday struck down a policy of routinely handcuffing and shackling pretrial detainees appearing before judges in the San Diego-based federal court district.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the Southern California district has not adequately justified its policy, adopted by the district judges in 2013 on the recommendation of the U.S. Marshals Service. The restraints include leg shackles and handcuffs linked to a belly band by a 15-inch chain.


Detainees often complained about the five-point restraints, and some judges in the district did not require them. The government argued the policy was needed to address security, financial and staffing concerns.

In a ruling written by Judge Mary M. Schroeder, the 9th Circuit called the shackles an "affront to the dignity and decorum" of the court and a threat to the ability of inmates to adequately participate in their defense.

"A full restraint policy ought to be justified by a commensurate need," Schroeder wrote. "It cannot rest primarily on the economic strain of the jailer to provide adequate safeguards."

The panel said courts may have blanket shackling policies if they are supported by sufficient evidence of a security need and if less restrictive measures, such as more staffing, would not suffice.

The 9th Circuit upheld a leg restraint policy in 2007 for detainees in a magistrate's courtroom at the Edward R. Roybal federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. But Schroeder said the shackles used there were less restrictive and the policy more narrow.

San Diego's policy "carries a greater risk of interfering with a defendant's constitutional rights," she wrote.

The challenge was brought by the San Diego lawyers whose clients had been shackled.

Ellis M. Johnston III, who represented the detainees for the Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc., said the restraints caused "humiliation, embarrassment and sometimes even pain" to detainees who, under the law, are presumed to be innocent.

He said some detainees have told family members not to come to court because they don't want to be seen in chains. The cuffs also make it difficult for detainees to take notes or tap an attorney's shoulder, he said.

"The decision recognizes the psychological pressures that can come from shackles," Johnston said.

U.S. Atty. Laura E. Duffy, whose office defended the policy, said the decision is being reviewed.

"Protecting defendants' rights and promoting courtroom security are both high priorities," she said.

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