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New York Court of Appeals: Constitutional Prohibition Against Restraining Defendant Without Explanation Remains in Force During Announcement of Verdict and Polling of Jurors

by Douglas Ankney

The New York Court of Appeals held that until the jury returns to the courtroom and publicly announces and confirms the verdict, the defendant is still presumed innocent, so the constitutional prohibition on restraining a defendant without explanation remains in force.

Oscar Sanders was tried by jury on several charges, including attempted assault in the first degree and assault in the second degree. After the jury advised the trial court it had reached a verdict but had not yet returned to the courtroom, defense counsel observed the defendant in handcuffs and made the following objection:

“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 Prosecution to poll the jury with the idea in mind that perhaps 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 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 trial court answered, “All right. The application is denied. Bring in the panel.” Everyone was then directed to stand as the jury entered. After the jury had entered, Sanders was again ordered by the judge to stand as the jury read the verdict. The jury found Sanders guilty on all counts, and the judge 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 in prison.

The Appellate Division affirmed, reasoning, in relevant part, “‘[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 ‘Defendant’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.’” Sanders was granted leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

The Court observed “[t]he 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.’” Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622 (2005). Consequently, trial courts have a constitutional obligation to engage in “close judicial scrutiny” prior to ordering a defendant to be restrained, the Court stated.

Turning to the present case, the Court observed that it is “undisputed that no such scrutiny occurred … and therefore the trial judge committed constitutional error by ordering defendant handcuffed without placing the special need for such restraints on the record.” See Deck.

The Court flatly rejected the prosecution’s argument that the constitutional prohibition against restraint articulated in Deck is inapplicable during the reading of the verdict and polling of the jurors. “First, Deck involved the application of the prohibition against restraint during the punishment phase of a capital case, which necessarily occurred after the guilty verdict had been entered,” the Court explained. “Second, the reading of the verdict is an integral part of the guilt-determination phase.... a verdict reported by the jury is not final unless properly recorded and accepted by the court,” the Court further explained. People v. Salemmo, 342 N.E.2d 579 (N.Y. 1976). Thus, the Court held that “until the jury returns to the courtroom, publicly announces the verdict, and, if polled, confirms the verdict, there’s no finding of guilt, defendant is still presumed innocent, and the constitutional prohibition on restraining a defendant without explanation remains in full force.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order of the Appellate Division and ordered a new trial. See: People v. Sanders, 205 N.E.3d 423 (N.Y. 2023).   

 

 

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