Criminal Defendant Handcuffed During Jury’s Reading of Verdict and Polling

Did Visible Shackles Violate Defendant’s Constitutional Rights?

The use of visible shackles during the guilt phase of a trial is forbidden in the absence of a special need. Is handcuffing the defendant also forbidden during the jury’s reading of its verdict and the court’s polling of the jurors. Here, the trial court ordered ordering defendant to be handcuffed when the jury returned to announce its verdict without providing an on-the-record, individualized explanation for the restraints. Was that a harmless error or an error that required reversal of defendant’s conviction and a new trial?

Oscar Sanders was tried before a jury on one count of attempted assault in the first degree and one count of assault in the second degree (arising from a physical altercation with the victim) and two counts of criminal contempt (resulting from his subsequent violations of an order of protection). After the jury advised the court that it had reached a verdict but before the jury returned to the courtroom, defense counsel observed Sanders in handcuffs. Counsel made the following objection in open court:

“I understand that it’s this court’s policy, I just learned this minutes ago, to keep my client in handcuffs while the jury comes out and renders their verdict. But it’s my understanding that the law allows for the defense and [p]rosecution to poll the jury with the idea in mind that perhaps the unanimity of the jury can be questioned when the foreperson announces a unanimous jury. And with that in mind, being that the defendant is in handcuffs while they announce that verdict, especially in the case of if it’s a verdict of guilty, lends pressure to anyone who might dissent during that polling to be influenced negatively against anyone in handcuffs, and certainly in this case, I would say that’s true for [defendant]. So I’m asking you to leave him uncuffed during the reading of the verdict for that reason.”

The court responded: “All right. The application is denied. Bring in the panel.”

A court officer then directed everyone in the courtroom to stand as the jury entered and, after the jurors had entered, the trial judge ordered Sanders to once again stand for the reading of the verdict. The jury then found him guilty on the various counts and the court confirmed the verdict by polling the jurors. Sanders was subsequently sentenced as a persistent felony offender to an aggregate term of 15 years to life imprisonment.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, reasoning, in relevant part, that “[a]ny error in defendant being handcuffed, without any explanation on the record, during the rendition of the verdict and the polling of the jury was harmless” because the jury had already reached its verdict and “[d]efendant’s suggestion that jurors may have been inclined to repudiate their verdicts during polling, but were influenced to refrain from doing so by the sight of defendant in handcuffs, is highly speculative”. A Judge of the Court of Appeals granted Sanders leave to appeal.

Precedent under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits States from physically restraining a defendant during a criminal trial without an on-the-record, individualized assessment of the “state interest specific to a particular trial”. A trial court therefore has a constitutional obligation to conduct “close judicial scrutiny” before ordering a defendant restrained. It was undisputed that no such scrutiny occurred here and therefore the trial judge committed a constitutional error by ordering defendant handcuffed without placing the special need for such restraints on the record. 

The prosecution’s claim that the constitutional prohibition articulated did not apply during the reading of the jury verdict and polling of individual jurors was meritless. First, the precedent involved the application of the constitutional prohibition against restraint during the punishment phase of a capital case, which necessarily occurred after the guilty verdict had been entered. Second, the reading of the verdict was an integral part of the guilt-determination phase—because a verdict reported by the jury is not final unless properly recorded and accepted by the court. Indeed, in accordance with CPL 310.80, the trial court must order the jury to resume deliberations when polling elicits a negative answer from one or more jurors. As a consequence, until the jury returned to the courtroom, publicly announced the verdict and, if polled, confirmed the verdict, there was no finding of guilt, Sanders was still presumed innocent, and the constitutional prohibition on restraining a defendant without explanation remained in full force.

Under the applicable harmless error standard, the Court of Appeals could not say that the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The error here required reversal of Sanders’ conviction and a new trial.

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