Yale Law School’s student legal clinics continue to make news at a dizzying pace. Last week, students filed a potential class action on behalf of military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who had received less-than-honorable discharges and were seeking to upgrade those discharges so they could receive benefits.
Now, in a case brought by a Yale clinic that focuses on veterans issues, a Massachusetts federal judge has said that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) is acting unconstitutionally when it shackles detainees in federal court.
This appears to be something of a national issue. In January, a federal judge in San Francisco approved a settlement which will limit shackling most immigrants during court hearings. In general, detainees will not be restrained at bond hearings or hearings on the merits of their case unless they pose a safety threat or risk of escape. They will, however, remain shackled at master calendar hearings, which are held for larger numbers of immigrants for brief, procedural issues like scheduling.
That agreement only affected the operations of the San Francisco Immigration Court. But advocacy groups expressed hope at the time that the settlement could set a precedent in other jurisdictions. Maybe it has. Here’s what a Yale Law School news release has to say about the Massachusetts case:
U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor declared the government’s nationwide policy of shackling detainees during immigration court proceedings unconstitutional, calling it an affront to a person’s dignity. Even the safety considerations cited by the government did not provide it with “unlimited authority” to shackle, wrote Judge Ponsor.
Since November 2012, ICE has enforced a policy of shackling nearly all immigration detainees during court appearances, without regard for their individual circumstances. Courts long ago ruled such blanket practices unlawful in criminal cases. In Judge Ponsor’s decision, the court recognized the “dehumanizing” and “demoralizing” effect of shackling a detainee in immigration court. “To deny or minimize an individual’s dignity in an immigration proceeding, or to treat this essential attribute of human worth as anything less than fundamental simply because an immigration proceeding is titularly civil, would be an affront to due process,” Judge Ponsor wrote.
The court acknowledged the serious problems that shackling poses to a detainee’s defense, noting that during his immigration proceedings, plaintiff Mark Reid was unable to write notes to his counsel or even to put on his glasses.
The court held that the Constitution requires that there be some type of an individualized assessment before a detained alien can be shackled at a hearing. Judge Ponsor left undecided whether an immigration judge or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must do this assessment. The court specifically noted that there may be cases where due process requires that the individualized assessment be done by a judge, not ICE.
The ruling comes on the heels of Judge Ponsor’s February decision to certify a class of all immigrant detainees held six months or longer in Massachusetts without a bond hearing. This ruling will enable Connecticut and Massachusetts residents to challenge the lengthy detention of people who pose no danger to the community. The representative plaintiff for the class is Mr. Reid, a lawful permanent resident from New Haven, Connecticut and veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. Judge Ponsor ruled in January that Mr. Reid was entitled to a bond hearing. Mr. Reid prevailed at his hearing, and was released after he posted bond.
“ICE officials are now on notice that shackling without an individualized determination is unconstitutional, and they may be personally liable for the harm that results,” said Kendall Hoechst, a law student intern with the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, counsel for Mr. Reid. “But we hope that the government hears the court’s message and takes it upon itself to comply with the law.”
“I was lucky to have been released on bond, so I do not have to experience the humiliation of being shackled anymore,” says Mr. Reid. “But hopefully this ruling will mean that those currently detained will be spared from the indignity I faced.”