Court orders Arizona federal judges to stop shackling defendants

A federal appeals court ordered U.S. District Court judges in Arizona to stop shackling defendants during court appearances unless the judge first determined that such restraints were the least restrictive way to preserve security and order in the court. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday ordered district judges in Arizona to stop shackling defendants unless they first determine that restraints are needed for “maintaining security and order” in the court.

The order by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals follows a May ruling by the full court in a California case that said judges could not shackle defendants without cause – a ruling that federal judges in Arizona felt did not apply to them.

But the appeals court panel said Friday that the May decision “constitutes binding authority” until overruled and said it has to be followed by all courts in the circuit, including those in Arizona.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Daniel L. Kaplan, who argued the case on behalf of Arizona defendants who were shackled in the courtroom, said Friday that his office was “pleased with the order” from the circuit court.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment Friday on the ruling.

The order came in response to a June challenge by three defendants whose requests to be unshackled during appearances in U.S. District Courts in Arizona
were denied by district judges.

Those three said the Arizona judges were ignoring the circuit court’s May 31 ruling in a case from the Southern District of California, where judges had agreed to the U.S. Marshals Service request “to produce all in-custody defendants in full restraints for most non-jury proceedings.”

Full restraint, according to the court ruling in that case, meant handcuffs connected to a chain around the defendant’s waist, which is connected to a chain shackling the defendant’s feet together.

The Southern California judges denied most requests to unshackle defendants, including one who had a broken wrist and another whose vision impairment required that he have one hand free so he could use his cane.

Four California defendants challenged that policy and the appellate court agreed, saying there are times when restraints are justified but “a blanket policy applied to all defendants infuses the courtroom with a prison atmosphere.” It found the policy unconstitutional, but did not issue an order because the four inmates cases were over.

The court agreed to stay that ruling while the government appealed.

Citing that stay, federal judges in Arizona found that the Southern California ruling did not apply and they continued to deny defendant requests to be unshackled in court – a decision that was backed by a court committee in the district.

The three Arizona defendants challenged that reasoning, saying courts here were bound by the California ruling that said a defendant is “presumptively innocent” under the Fifth Amendment and that it is up to judges to decide the “least restrictive” means to maintain security. That decision is not up to security forces, the ruling said.

The appeals panel on Friday agreed, saying Arizona district courts “committed clear error” by deferring the mandate, and ordered the Arizona judges to comply with the California ruling.

“A published decision of this court is binding on lower courts within this circuit,” whether or not the mandate in the first case has been
stayed, the panel said.

After the three Arizona defendants filed their claim – and before Friday’s ruling – Arizona District Court Chief Judge Raner C. Collins set a district-wide procedure for judges to determine if and how a defendant should be restrained in court. That policy, which was not immediately available Friday, said defendants should not be restrained unless it can be shown that restraint is necessary, according to the panel’s order.

Kaplan welcomed the decision, which he said falls in line with the earlier decision requiring a reason to shackle a defendant. While the government may pursue an appeal in the Arizona case, he said, he expects it is a “higher priority” to appeal California ruling.