Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq.
On May 14, 2018, in the case of United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 2804 (U.S. May 14, 2018), the United States Supreme Court held that a challenge to a district-wide policy of using “full restraints” on in-custody criminal defendants was moot because the underlying criminal cases against Respondents had ended. The high court rejected the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ novel application of precedent in class action cases to what the appellate court had determined to be “class-like” claims in the case. The Ninth Circuit had used this application as a way to avoid mootness, though there was no actual class certification involved in this case.
In the Southern District of California, the
District Court judges acceded to a United States Marshal Service’s request to allow a district-wide policy of application of full safety restraints on any in-custody criminal defendant during non-jury, pre-trial criminal proceedings. The four Respondents in this case were shackled in accordance with this policy during their pre-trial proceedings. They challenged the use of full safety restraints in their respective criminal cases and also, more broadly, the policy itself. The District Court denied their challenges.
Respondents appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but their respective criminal cases ended before the Ninth Circuit could adjudicate the safety restraint issue. Proceeding to address the restraint policy issue nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit regarded the matter as a “functional class action” case, and determined that Supreme Court civil class action precedents saved the case from mootness because the case involved “class-like claims” seeking “class-like relief.” Expressing its supervisory authority over the Southern District, the Ninth Circuit turned to the merits, and ultimately concluded that the use of full safety restraints violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court granted review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
The Supreme Court first explained that the federal judiciary can only adjudicate “actual and concrete disputes, the resolutions of which have direct consequences on the parties involved.” Such a dispute “must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed.” Preiser v. Newkirk, 422 U.S. 395, 401, 95 S. Ct. 2330, 45 L. Ed. 2d 272 (1975). A case that becomes moot at any point during the proceedings is “no longer a ‘Case’ or ‘Controversy’ for purposes of Article III,” and is outside the jurisdiction of the federal courts, the Court noted. Already, LLC v. Nike, Inc., 568 U.S. 85, 91, 133 S. Ct. 721, 184 L. Ed. 2d 553 (2013). The Supreme Court made several determinations.
- The Ninth Circuit wrongly relied on class action precedent in concluding that the case was not moot.
The Supreme Court observed that the Ninth Circuit had relied on the high court’s civil class action precedents, particularly Gerstein v. Pugh, in its analysis. The Supreme Court stated that this reliance was misplaced. The Court explained that Gerstein was a class action involving pretrial detention brought under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 23. A month prior to the Gerstein decision, the high court had adjudicated Sosna v. Iowa. In Sosna, the Court held that when the claim of the named plaintiff becomes moot after class certification, a “live controversy may continue to exist” based on the ongoing interests of the remaining unnamed class members. The certification of class status bestowed a “legal status separate from the interest asserted by the named plaintiff.”
The Supreme Court explained that Gerstein simply provided a limited exception to Sosna’s requirement that, at the time of class certification, a plaintiff with a live claim must exist. The Court further stated that it had repeatedly confined the Gerstein exception “to the class action setting from which it emerged.” The Court then rejected the Ninth Circuit’s notion “that Gerstein supports a freestanding exception to mootness outside the class action context.” The Court observed that the class action is a creature of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which were not applicable to the criminal context of the Respondents in this case. The Court further noted that the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provided “no vehicle comparable to the civil class action,” and that “this Court has never permitted criminal defendants to band together to seek prospective relief in their individual cases on behalf of a class.” As such, the Court concluded that the Ninth Circuit incorrectly utilized Gerstein in determining that this case was not moot.
- The Ninth Circuit incorrectly determined that the case remained alive as a controversy that was “capable of repetition, yet evading review”.
Two Respondents, whose criminal cases arose from their illegal entry into the United States, argued that their cases fell within the “exception to the mootness doctrine for a controversy that is capable of repetition, yet evading review.” The Supreme Court explained that a dispute qualifies for this exception only “if (1) the challenged action is in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there is a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party will be subjected to the same action again.” The first element was uncontested.
The Respondents claimed that the second prong also applied to them because these two Respondents would again violate the law, be apprehended, and be returned to pretrial custody to encounter the full safety restraint policy again. In rejecting this argument, the Court explained that it had consistently refused to conclude that the requirement was satisfied by the possibility that a party would be inevitably prosecuted for violating valid criminal laws. The Court stated that it had always assumed that litigants would conduct themselves lawfully and therefore avoid prosecution, conviction, and the chance to be exposed to the challenged course of conduct.
The Court also explained that the cases Respondents cited in support of their argument were inapposite because they concerned litigants unable, for reasons beyond their control, to prevent themselves from transgressing and avoid recurrence of the challenged conduct. Here, the Court noted that Respondents were able to control their own behavior to avoid reentry into the country. Moreover, they were required by law to do so. Thus, the Court found that the second prong of the test was not satisfied and this exception to the mootness doctrine also did not apply.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the case as moot.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
Jones & Mayer previously filed an amicus brief on behalf of the California State Sheriff’s Association urging the Supreme Court to accept this case for review due to the serious detrimental effect on law enforcement safety that the Ninth Circuit’s en banc opinion created. Specifically, the United States Marshals Service urged implementation of the full safety restraint policy following a number of documented attacks by inmates housed in the Southern District of California jail facilities on other inmates and law enforcement officers. For example, the Marshals Service noted that, in 2013 alone, there were two separate inmate-on-inmate assaults inside courtrooms. An inmate was stabbed in the face as a result of one of those assaults. The Marshals Service also discovered that several detainees had armed themselves with homemade weapons in holding cells, including a detainee with no violent background who attempted to smuggle a razor blade in his shoe.
Moreover, the Marshals Service determined that it lacked sufficient information to predict which detainees would present a danger. In many cases, detainees with no history of violence, or those who were charged with non-violent offenses, engaged in violent acts while in custody. For instance, in 2013, there were seven detainee-on-staff assaults in the Southern District of California. Six of the offenders had been charged with non-violent offenses, and five of those six had no histories of violence. Accordingly, there were multiple reasons for implementation of the safety restraint policy.
Despite these facts, the Ninth Circuit engaged in a judicial “overreach” by determining that it had jurisdiction, when it, in fact, did not, as recognized by the Supreme Court in this opinion. The Supreme Court made clear that Gerstein rule applies only in civil class action suits. The Ninth Circuit’s attempt to apply Gerstein to broaden its scope to criminal litigants was firmly rebuffed. However, agencies should take note that the Court mentioned that it did not close the door on other avenues to challenge the use of full safety restraints by way of civil lawsuits. Accordingly, this issue may arise again in the future. In the meantime, this opinion represents a significant victory for law enforcement.
As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Described as restraining “handcuffs connected to a waist chain, with legs shackled.”
 The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution declares that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
 Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66 (2013).
 420 U.S. 103 (1975).
 419 U.S. 393 (1975).
 Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66 (2013).
 Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1969 (2016).
 Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431 (2011).