Appellate Court Stays O.C. Judge’s Order Banning Waist Shackles in Courtrooms

December 3, 2019 Updated: December 3, 2019

In Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes’s legal challenge against a ban on the routine shackling of inmates with waist chains in county courthouses, the sheriff has won a temporary victory.

The California Court of Appeals stayed a Nov. 18 order by California Superior Court Judge Kathleen Roberts banning the use of waist shackles for inmates awaiting their court appearances in Orange County court holding cells.

Barnes, who contends the use of waist restraints is a necessary security precaution to protect inmates, courthouse personnel, and members of the public, filed an appeal challenging the judge’s decision. On Nov. 22, Roberts’ ruling was stayed by the 4th District Court of Appeal.

The sheriff recently imposed the policy of using waist shackles on inmates while transporting them to and from county courthouses and while they are in court holding cells. The chains attach an inmate’s wrists to their waists, a practice that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and some defense lawyers have called inhumane.

In a letter posted on social media, Barnes blasted Roberts, calling her ruling “judicial overreach” and accusing the judge of being biased in favor of the ACLU.

“Interestingly, Judge Roberts had initially recused herself from the issue citing her family’s current association with and her past membership of the ACLU, a political advocacy group that routinely advocates against law enforcement, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the concept of incarceration in general,” Barnes stated in the letter. “Days later, in contrast to her own self-declared conflict Judge Roberts made a decision for the entire Orange County Superior Court system that was very much consistent with the ACLU’s anti-incarceration agenda.”

The controversy erupted when Sara Ross, a deputy public defender, filed a court motion to abolish the routine use of waist shackles at the courthouse. She questioned the constitutionality of the sheriff’s blanket policy of using waist chains on all inmates rather than on a case-by-case basis, like the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“We are very concerned about the stay and continued shackling on our clients’ mental and physical health, as well as the impact it will have on their cases,” said Ross, according to the Orange County Register. “It is still unclear why such drastic, traumatic measures are currently necessary.”

Defense attorneys complained that under the sheriff’s policy, their clients were chained for up to 14 hours in holding cells while waiting for their court appearances or to be transported back to the jail.

Though the judge insisted that the shackles be removed at the courthouse door, lawyers for the sheriff’s department argued the holding cells fall under the sheriff’s domain—not the court’s.

However, Roberts wrote in her Nov. 18 ruling (pdf), “court house holding cells are literally the gateways to justice for all detained defendants. As such, they are not purely detention facilities.”

She ruled that the sheriff’s blanket policy of shackling prisoners in holding cells “is impermissible.”

“This court finds that blanket shackling of in custody defendants demeans the dignity of the court process, the court room and the defendant and violates the due process rights of the accused,” she wrote.

Roberts cited California Penal Code, Section 688: “No person charged with a public offense may be subjected, before conviction, to any more restraint than is necessary for his detention to answer the charge.”

Under her ruling, waist shackles could still be used when transporting inmates from jail to the courthouse, and the sheriff’s department could make case specific requests to judges for some prisoners, such as those who present an escape risk, to be restrained even in the courtroom.

Roberts stayed her own court order until Nov. 22 “to minimize security risks to the Sheriff’s deputies and the inmates while a viable alternative security plan is implemented,” which gave the sheriff’s department an opportunity to seek an appeal before the ban took effect.

The 4th District Court of Appeals stay will allow the sheriff’s department to continue using waist shackles until a full ruling is made by the appellate court.

In her ruling, Roberts included a female inmate’s written account of how she panicked the first time she was placed in waist shackles.

“I had a mild panic attack,” the prisoner wrote. “It was difficult to breathe and I began to panic because the waist chain was tight, it was difficult to breath and move, and I had to work very hard just to calm myself down to get through the day.”

The inmate claimed that with handcuffs attached to the chain around her waist, her physical range of motion was so limited that she refrained from using a toilet for hours because she was afraid she would not be able to properly clean herself without assistance. The prisoner wrote she was menstruating at the time.

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

Roberts cited several cases in which other courts have expressed concern that shackling prisoners could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to freely discuss details of their defense strategies, including plea bargains, with their lawyers.

“In fact, the 9th Circuit Court of appeals has noted that restraining an individual in shackles ‘may confuse and embarrass the defendant, thereby impairing his mental faculties and they may cause him pain,’” Roberts wrote.

She said the court was unpersuaded by county lawyers that shackling prisoners in holding cells is the “least restrictive means to accomplish security goals.”

The judge also wrote that no complaints regarding security issues were brought to the court’s attention when inmates were not shackled in court holding cells prior to October when the sheriff’s new policy was implemented.

“There is no factual basis before the court that evidences a need to shackle all detainees,” Roberts wrote.

However, the sheriff disagrees.

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

He accused Ross and other defense lawyers of making a “political decision” to challenge the waist restraint policy.

“In fighting the policy, these lawyers have grossly distorted the restrictiveness of the waist restraints implying they prevent inmates from engaging in basic human needs such as eating and using the bathroom. The facts prove otherwise,” Barnes wrote.

In-cell videos show that inmates can eat, use the toilet and blow their nose while restrained, the sheriff contends.

“The restraints, however, do accomplish the goal of limiting the type of movement that would be necessary to use violence against another inmate or staff,” said Barnes.

The use of waist shackles has reduced assaults inside court facilities by 60 percent since the new policy was implemented, he added.

In 2016, three inmates escaped from Men’s Central Jail. The prisoners, who were accused of violent crimes, cut through a metal screen in their fourth-floor maximum security jail cell, crawled through a plumbing tunnel, and rappelled from the roof using a makeshift rope of knotted bed sheets.

Last year, the ACLU applauded Congress for passing the First Step Act, which among other criminal justice reforms prohibited the shackling of pregnant prisoners in federal custody, except in certain cases.

The ACLU called the move “a major milestone in the ongoing battle to end a brutal, inhumane and unnecessary practice.”

The First Step Act, which has forged the unlikely alliance of President Donald Trump, Congress, and the ACLU, among other groups, has been hailed by supporters as pivotal point in the progression towards meaningful reform of America’s criminal justice system.