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Michigan Supreme Court to consider rule changes on restraints, redactions

Michigan Supreme Court
Photo by larrysphatpage, Flickr
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The Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court will consider a handful of rule changes at a November hearing.

The changes would apply to courts across the state. The state Supreme Court has rulemaking power for the Michigan court system.

One of the proposed changes would prevent defendants from appearing before a jury in restraints, like handcuffs, chains, and straitjackets, with some exceptions for safety.

Supporters of the change to the court's restraint policy say visible restraints can be dehumanizing and taint a jury’s perception of a defendant.

Concurring with the proposed change, Justice Megan Cavanagh wrote the issue of shackling comes down to the legal principles of presumed innocence, right to counsel, and to a dignified legal process.

She cited the U.S. Supreme Court Case Deck v. Missouri and disagreement over how far the decision limits courts’ ability to restrain defendants.

“Even if the inquiry into whether the shackles were visible to jurors effectively analyzes the question of prejudice from unconstitutional shackling, we should strive to avoid the error in the first place, rather than knowingly commit the error while rendering it unreviewable," she said.

If approved, the new rule would apply to misdemeanor, felony, and automatic waiver cases.

In a letter to the court, the State Appellate Defender Office asked for the rule to apply to all proceedings in court.

“Restraints are cumbersome, embarrassing, and dehumanizing, a letter signed by Assistant Defender Garrett Burton read. "Those considerations hold regardless of whether a jury is present. At resentencing hearings and evidentiary hearings, we represent people appearing before only a judge. It is necessary to that person’s dignity, but also to facilitate communication between an attorney and a client. It is virtually impossible to write while in hand restraints."

On the other side, opponents say restricting the use of restraints could present a public safety risk.

In written comments, Justice Brian Zahra argued the Deck decision only applied “when the jury sees and is made aware of the restraints.”

He also questioned the process by which judges would determine whether to restrain defendants.

“The published rule would extend Deck even to bench trials held before the very judge who would have earlier made the decision on whether to shackle the defendant,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justice David Viviano.

Meanwhile, another proposed rule change would redact personally identifiable information like addresses and phone numbers from police reports and interrogation records provided to a defendant.

Current policy only redacts information relating to a continuing investigation. It doesn't mention the personally identifiable information.

The meeting to review the proposed rule amendments will take place on November 16th. The public will also have a chance to weigh in during the meeting.

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