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Can A Defendant Be Forced To Wear Shackles During A Trial?

People v. Cruz 2011 NY Slip Op 08454

Decided November 22, 2011 New York Court of Appeals 

Issue: whether the presence of leg shackles on the defendant during trial was a violation of his constitutional rights and so highly prejudicial that it warrants a new trial.

Holding: Reversed and a new trial ordered. Federal constitutional law “prohibits the use of physical restraints visible to the jury during a criminal trial, absent a court determination that they are justified by an essential state interest specific to the defendant on trial”.

Facts: Naomi Edwards encountered an intruder in the kitchen of her home in Brentwood, Suffolk County. The man appeared to her to be “Puerto Rican or . . . light skinned African American.” He pulled a baseball cap down over his face and ran out of her house.

Edwards’s neighbor, Raquel Oliveria, had seen a man on a light blue ten-speed bicycle riding slowly back and forth on the street, before entering Edwards’s driveway.  man parked his bicycle in the driveway,He attempted to open two windows at Edwards’s house.  A few minutes later, Oliveria saw the man as he fled the house.

Edwards and Oliveria called 911. Police Officer Charles Ross was dispatched to look for a Hispanic male, riding a blue bicycle, Within about three minutes, Ross saw a man fitting that description,  about a quarter of a mile from Edwards’s house. The man, defendant Geraldo Cruz, said he was on his way to a friend’s house.

Officer Petersen asked Oliveria to accompany him to view the suspect. At the “show-up,” Oliveria identified Cruz as the man she had seen trying to break in to her neighbor’s house. However, she did so, not by recognizing his face, but on the basis of the clothes he was wearing and the bicycle he was riding.

County Court held Wade and Sandoval hearings. At the latter, it emerged that Cruz had four felony and four misdemeanor convictions. The record contains no evidence that Cruz behaved disruptively during the hearings. 

At voir dire, defense counsel, finding Cruz in “leg shackles,” asked for the basis for restraining his client. County Court gave no immediate explanation, but noted that a curtain of opaque bunting had been placed around the defense table to conceal the restraints. The jury, County Court opined, would “never know anything about the shackles.” Defense counsel strenuously objected, around the defense table but not the prosecution table that Cruz was shackled.

Subsequently, County Court made the following remarks, regarding Cruz’s shackles:”[Cruz] is no stranger to the criminal justice system. He has been a threat before to society. Also, my concern is that it’s been explained to him should he not prevail on this matter he’s looking at a long, long time. . . . His motive to destroy the trial or to take vengeance upon anybody who testifies or just to disrupt the proceedings, based upon the potential for what he’s looking at might be an incentive.

County Court also stated that the incidence of “problems” in courtrooms had “risen dramatically over the last few years.” Finally, the judge mentioned that Cruz was not being “singled out,” adding that shackling had been his “policy . . . with numerous cases. The next day, County Court added”[S]o the record is clear, . . . the shackling . . . was not my independent determination. It was recommended to me by the security staff.” County Court then denied defense counsel’s request for a hearing on the matter.

The restraints were removed before Cruz was escorted by court officers to the witness stand to testify. Oliveria and Edwards testified at the trial. The jury heard testimony concerning Oliveria’s show-up identification of Cruz. Edwards identified Cruz’s hat and shirt as those the intruder had worn.  Cruz testified that the bicycle he was riding when arrested was not his own; seeing the bicycle lying abandoned on the street, he had taken it a few moments before the police stopped him.The jury found Cruz guilty of burglary in the second degree.  Cruz appealed, arguing, among other things, that the shackling violated his constitutional rights. The Appellate Division affirmed County Court’s judgment of conviction. A Judge of this Court granted Cruz leave to appeal, and we now reverse.

Legal Analysis: Federal constitutional law “prohibits the use of physical restraints visible to the jury during a criminal trial, absent a court determination that they are justified by an essential state interest specific to the defendant on trial”.

Trial courts may not shackle defendants routinely, but only if there is a particular reason to do so”. On the record before us, we cannot conclude that the shackles were not visible to the jury, or that the jury, seeing the bunting around the defense table and not the prosecutor’s, would not have inferred that it was there to hide shackles on Cruz’s legs.  County Court did not place on the record any findings, particular to Cruz, justifying the use of leg irons.  In its final statement on the matter, County Court conceded that it had not reached its own “independent determination” as to the necessity of shackles. Consequently, the use of leg irons was a violation of Cruz’s constitutional rights under Deck. Harmless error analysis is applicable to the People concede that the evidence against Cruz was not overwhelming, so that they cannot meet their burden of showing that any constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

In Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622 (2005) the United States Supreme Court held that the Federal OCnstitution prohibits the use of phisycal restraints visible to the jury during a criminal tiral, absent a court determination that they are justified by an essential state interest specific to the defendant on trial  USc essential state interests include phisicla security, escape prevention and courtoom decorum.

The trial court must exercise close judicial scrutiny in determining whether such an interest requires shackling.  the court enunciated three fundamental legal principles that underlie this well grounded holding: the presumption of innocence, securing a meaningful defense, and maintaining dignified proceedings.  Visible shackles my not be used unless justified by an individualized security determination conducted by the trial court, which must be case specific and should reflect particular concerns or special security needs or escape risks, related to the defendant ton trial .  To avoid committing error, a trial court requiring a defendant to be visibly shackled should place its individualized findings on the record.