Clallam County Chief Corrections Deputy Ron Sukert said shackles and handcuffs have been used to restrain jail inmates in Clallam County District and Superior Court courtrooms since about 1980. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam County Chief Corrections Deputy Ron Sukert said shackles and handcuffs have been used to restrain jail inmates in Clallam County District and Superior Court courtrooms since about 1980. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam judge affirms use of shackles in pretrial appearances

PORT ANGELES — The shackling of jail inmates accused or charged with offenses in Clallam County Superior Court has been affirmed by Judge Erik Rohrer.

Rohrer issued his Jan. 20 ruling in a six-page opinion in answer to multiple objections and motions filed by Harry Gasnick of Clallam Public Defender.

Gasnick challenged the county jail’s blanket use of metal handcuffs, belly-chains and leg restraints for pretrial appearances in Superior Court for more than 20 of his clients.

After Rohrer’s ruling, a Superior Court hearing challenging the pretrial shackling of accused murderer Tommy L. Ross that was scheduled for Friday was stricken from the court calendar.

Restraints also are used for pretrial appearances in Clallam County District Court for anyone in jail, including, for example, habitual traffic offenders, Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict said.

Most inmates on pay-or-appear warrants are released, he added.

Jefferson County Jail Superintendent Steve Richmond said metal restraints are used for pretrial appearances in Jefferson County Superior and District courts.

“Anytime a jury is present, they won’t see shackles,” Richmond said.

Restraints are not used when defendants are on trial unless by specific order of the court in both counties. Nor are they used when court hearings are held via video from jails in both counties.

Gasnick argued that those making pretrial court appearances in Clallam County Superior Court should be restrained only after a court hearing and the entry of findings into the court record.

“People have a right to be treated as individuals and as human beings even if they are accused of committing crimes, particularly if they have yet to be convicted of committing those crimes,” he said Friday.

Rohrer ruled specifically in a case involving Blake Rylee Gallauher, 25, of Port Angeles, who had been charged with two counts of second-degree identity theft and two counts of forgery.

“To the extent that the objection to shackles is based on concerns about confusing and embarrassing the defendant, prejudicing the court or showing disrespect for the court, it is difficult for the court to discern how appearing from the jail on a video conference — which is specifically authorized — would be significantly different,” Rohrer said.

He noted Gallauher’s court appearance was a brief, pretrial, non-jury hearing.

“Here, as in [U.S. vs.] Howard, there are significant security concerns associated with transporting varying numbers of in-custody defendants from secure facilities to less secure courtrooms,” Rohrer said in his ruling.

”The courtrooms are fairly large and are essentially unsecured (at least in the sense that there are multiple unlocked potential escape routes leading from the courtrooms).

“Further, as in Howard, Clallam County is routinely limited by budget issues and staff shortages,” Rohrer said.

“The court will consider motions for removal of restraints in trials and sentencing proceedings, but will adopt the Clallam County Correctional Facility’s shackling policy for hearings that could otherwise be heard by video conference.”

“Alternatively, the court will proceed toward increased use of video conferencing for all authorized hearings.”

Clallam County Jail Superintendent Ron Sukert said shackles have been used to restrain people charged with or held for investigation of crimes since around 1980.

Sukert said that about 10 years later, judges ordered that restraints be removed for court appearances until an inmate assaulted an officer and escaped while his restraints were being taken off for a courtroom appearance.

The inmate was recaptured about seven blocks away, by the bluff stairway off First Street near where Country Aire Natural Foods now stands.

But Gasnick suggested the exception should not be the rule and that if it were, bail would never be granted because of the risk involved.

“Stuff is going to happen,” Gasnick said Friday. “That does not mean you treat 99.9 percent of the remaining population as less than human.”

In addition, he said, if a jury can be prejudiced by seeing a defendant in shackles, why not a judge who is deciding on a pretrial motion?

“You’ve got a judge who is supposed to make a decision on whether you should be released and you bring him up [before the judge] chained like an animal, I think that impacts the judge.”

Gasnick was hesitant to comment on the impact of the ruling on shackling District Court defendants.

“One would imagine if District Court were to make a ruling contrary to [Rohrer’s decision], there would be an appeal,” he said.

Benedict said Rohrer’s ruling affirms the use of shackles by jail staff.

He said restraints are appropriate whether or not the inmate has violent tendencies.

“How do I know who is going to be violent at their first appearance?” Benedict said. “The use of shackles is not predicated on the seriousness of the crime as much as it is on providing overall security.”

And if inmates were not shackled, it also would require an extra officer in court, Benedict said.

Plastic “flex cuffs” are too expensive, he added.

It appears that in-person pretrial appearances and hearings are becoming a thing of the past, anyway.

While Clallam County moves toward holding more video-conference hearings, as pledged by Rohrer in his ruling, Jefferson County has already substantially headed in that direction.

There, the jail is in Port Hadlock and the courthouse in Port Townsend, 9.5 miles away.

“There are certain hearings where the actual presence of the inmate is required,” Richmond said.

“About 95 percent of hearings in Superior and District courts are video.”

Port Angeles lawyer Lane Wolfley began representing Ross, the accused murderer who has pleaded not guilty to killing Port Angeles resident Janet Bowcutt in 1978, after Gasnick withdrew from the case over a conflict of interest.

Wolfley said Rohrer’s decision amounts to a blanket ruling on all pending cases in Superior Court.

“It’s just a matter of court policy,” Wolfley said.

“The court can pretty well do what it wants to do to maintain order in its court.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with whether my client is guilty or innocent, so I don’t particularly worry about it.”

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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