U.S. v. Sanchez-Gomez: Challenge to pretrial shackling policy became moot in individual criminal cases once those cases were concluded
Individual criminal defendants’ claims that a pretrial shackling policy was unconstitutional became moot when the defendants’ criminal cases were concluded, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 14 in U.S. v. Sanchez-Gomez.
The defendants’ claims were not saved from mootness on grounds that their claims were “like” a class-action suit, the Court held.
But the Court noted that other legal avenues are available for challenging the policy.
Following a recommendation by the U.S. Marshals Service, the Southern District of California adopted a policy that all in-custody criminal defendants be shackled in “full restraints” at pretrial proceedings, subject to individual exceptions approved by a judge.
Four defendants challenged the policy in their individual criminal cases as violating their Fifth Amendment due process rights.
After the District Court denied relief, they appealed to the Ninth Circuit, but their criminal cases were resolved by guilty pleas or deferred prosecution agreements while the appeal was pending.
The Ninth Circuit held the defendants’ challenge was not moot because their claims were a “functional class action” involving “class-like claims” and seeking “class-like relief” against the policy.
Case is moot
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, held that the defendants’ challenge was moot.
“To invoke federal jurisdiction, a plaintiff must show a ‘personal stake’ in the outcome of the action,” the Court said.
The Ninth Circuit erroneously relied on Supreme Court precedent which allowed certain class action cases to proceed, even though any given individual may not be in pretrial custody long enough for certification of a class, as long as some group of detainees would be subject to the challenged practice.
That precedent did not create “a freestanding exception to mootness outside the class action context,” the Court said. To take advantage of that exception, a formal class action suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 must be filed.
The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure do not create any vehicle comparable to a formal class action suit under Rule 23, the Court said.
“[W]e have never permitted criminal defendants to band together to seek prospective relief in their individual criminal cases on behalf of a class,” the Court said. Lower courts are not free to recognize a “common-law kind of class action” or create “de facto class actions at will.”
But “[n]one of this is to say that those who wish to challenge the use of full physical restraints in the Southern District lack any avenue for relief,” the Court said. Various kinds of civil suits may be available, the Court said. “Because we hold this case is moot, we take no position on the question.”