Due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments restricts the use of physical restraints on criminal defendants during a criminal trial. Because shackles are inherently prejudicial, the Supreme Court instructed in Deck v. Morrison (2005) that defendants should only be shackled during trial as a last resort. Shackles interfere with a jury’s ability to make accurate determinations about both guilt and sentencing because they imply to a jury that the defendant is dangerous, and may cause a jury to infer negative attributes about the defendant’s character.
The Court established a rule in Deck that physical restraints that are visible to a jury may only be used after a trial court determination that they are justified by an essential state interest, based on particular concerns in a specific defendant’s trial. For example, a trial court may find that a particular defendant poses such severe security risks that shackling is necessary to protect the occupants of the courtroom. Judges may not impose blanket rules about the use of restraints, and the inquiry must be specific to concerns about the particular defendant. The Deck rule applies to both guilt-determination proceedings and to sentencing proceedings.
The Court builds the rule in Deck v. Morrison from three essential principles:
- The presumption of a defendant’s innocence until proven guilty. Visible restraints erode the fairness of the criminal proceeding by implying that the defendant is dangerous and tipping the scale in favor of guilt.
- The defendant’s constitutional right to counsel. Shackles interfere with a defendant’s ability to move freely to communicate with her attorney. Defendants physically struggle to write when they are restricted by shackles, which limits their ability to effectively communicate with counsel during criminal proceedings.
- The dignity and decorum of the courtroom is necessary to support confidence that the legal system pursues justice as it handles the potential deprivation of liberty. Courtroom dignity requires that defendants are treated respectfully.
The Court only addressed jury proceedings in Deck. The Deck holding left lower courts to determine whether a defendant’s due process rights require the same justification for shackles in proceedings without juries.
The Second Circuit does not require a specific evaluation of the need for restraints in non-jury proceedings. Because juror prejudice is the primary concern for limiting the use of restraints in the courtroom, the Second Circuit examined in United States v. Zuber (1997) whether a concern of prejudice is present when judges rather than juries do the sentencing.
We traditionally assume that judges, unlike juries, are not prejudiced by impermissible factors, …, and we make no exception here. We presume that where, as here, the court defers without further inquiry to the recommendation of the Marshals Service that a defendant be restrained at sentencing, the court will not permit the presence of the restraints to affect its sentencing decision.
Similarly, the Eleventh Circuit held in United States v. Lafond (2015) that the Deck rule against restraints only limits the use of restraints at proceedings with juries.
The Ninth Circuit arrived at a different conclusion in United States v. Sanchez-Gomez (2017). The court extended the Deck rule to non-jury proceedings and clarified that it applies in pretrial, trial, and sentencing proceedings. The Ninth Circuit now requires that, before shackling a criminal defendant in both jury and non-jury proceedings, courts must decide if the security concerns with the particular defendant outweigh the infringement on the defendant’s due process right.
Continuing with the rationale for the Deck rule, the court applied the principle of presuming a defendant’s innocence until proven guilty.
The principle [that defendants are innocent until proven guilty] isn’t limited to juries or trial proceedings. It includes the perception of any person who may walk into a public courtroom, as well as those of the jury, the judge and court personnel. 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.
Using the third Deck justification, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that dignity and decorum require consistent application of the rule:
Courtrooms are palaces of justice, imbued with a majesty that reflects the gravity of proceedings designed to deprive a person of liberty or even life. A member of the public who wanders into a criminal courtroom must immediately perceive that it is a place where justice is administered with due regard to individuals whom the law presumes to be innocent. That perception cannot prevail if defendants are marched in like convicts on a chain gang. Both the defendant and the public have the right to a dignified, inspiring and open court process. Thus, innocent defendants may not be shackled at any point in the courtroom unless there is an individualized showing of need.
The Supreme Court recently granted a writ of certiorari for Sanchez-Gomez, but declined to take up the issue of whether due process prohibits the use of restraints in non-jury proceedings. The circuit split and conflicting rationales present a need for clarity on this important constitutional issue.