On July 18, a man was in the Lafayette Parish Courthouse for his sentencing hearing for theft and money laundering. He had been convicted of stealing significant amounts of money. He had been in jail for 18 months, and appeared at the sentencing hearing with chains on his hands and legs. According to witnesses, he repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, including after being told by the trial judge to stop.
After one of these interruptions, the judge ordered two deputies to put tape over his mouth. He struggled in pain and attempted to remove the tape, and one of the deputies pulled him by the face and neck. After the man’s attorney, a public defender with our office, objected repeatedly to this, the judge asked the defendant if he would be quiet. The judge did not order the tape taken off until the man said yes, which he did while the tape was still covering his mouth.
News reports on this case have discussed the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Illinois v. Allen, where the Court ruled that a disruptive defendant could be removed from the courtroom, and discussed the possibility of gagging an unruly criminal defendant. Because the Court found that gagging is “an affront to the very dignity and decorum of judicial proceedings that the judge is seeking to uphold,” it must only be permitted “as a last resort.”
What the trial judge did here was without a doubt not the last resort. The judge could have put the defendant in another room and allowed him to participate in the proceedings via closed circuit, a technology that the Lafayette Parish courthouse possesses. The judge could have held him in contempt of court. The judge could have temporarily recessed the hearing to allow the defendant time to compose himself and consult with counsel. The judge could have ordered the defendant out of the courtroom and let the hearing go on without him. (The Allen case expressly authorized removing a defendant from his trial after he was disruptive, despite the defendant’s constitutional right to be present for court proceedings.)
All of these options were available. Instead, the judge ordered tape to be placed over this man’s mouth and around his head. This was not the last resort. Quite to the contrary, it appears that it was the judge’s first resort when the man continued talking despite the judge’s orders to stop.
The job of a trial judge is difficult. A judge must make decisions that could cost people their freedom, take children away from their parents, or result in financial ruin. Sometimes, parties to cases act in ways that are disruptive, and a judge must make sure the courtroom is run properly.
But a judge must also respect and follow the law. A judge must maintain the dignity of the system in which he or she works, and must ensure that all people are treated fairly, humanely, and with dignity. Time and time again, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the actions of our government, including our elected judges, must comport with the “dignity of the person” and the “civilized standards” of our society. What happened in that courtroom simply did not meet these very basic requirements.
supervising attorney, 15th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office