05/18/2024

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Background: Edward J. Schwartz U.S. Courthouse in San Diego, Calif. Inset: U.S. District Judge Robert Benitez (via U.S. Courts.)

‘You’re an awfully cute young lady’: Judge who shackled crying daughter of defendant to prove a point reprimanded as council says he had ‘no authority’

Background: Edward J. Schwartz U.S. Courthouse in San Diego, Calif. Inset: U.S. District Judge Robert Benitez (via U.S. Courts.)

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez argued he was just trying to teach the 13-year-old daughter of a criminal defendant a tough lesson when he shackled her in his California courtroom and then had her led to the jury box by a marshal as she cried. But in a rare rebuke, an appeals court called that conduct “abusive” and “harassing” and stripped him of taking any on new criminal cases for three years.

“The Judicial Counsel finds two features of this conduct impermissible. First, the shackling of a spectator at a hearing who is not engaged in threatening or disorderly behavior exceeds the authority of a district judge. Second, creating a spectacle out of a minor child in the courtroom chills the desire of friends, family members, and members of the public to support loved ones at sentencing,” the 11-member panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judicial Council wrote in the May 1 order.

According to the order, the judge also “admonished” the 12-year-old son of another defendant as well, but there was not misconduct determined in that case.

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    Thee San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Benitez said he “respectfully” disagreed with the ruling.

    In a summary of the events that unfolded in February 2023, the opinion notes that the 13-year-old girl was in the courtroom as her father, Mario Puente, appeared before Benitez, an appointee of George W. Bush, for sentencing after having violated conditions of his release. Puente’s daughter had prepared a written statement to support her dad and was sitting in the back of the courtroom with a family friend.

    As Benitez recited allegations back to her father, Puente’s attorney noted the girl was in the courtroom to the judge. Benitz then asked the girl’s father whether he had “anything to add.”

    Puente said he thought his daughter was “following the same footsteps as I am right now” and when the judge asked him to elaborate, he did, saying she had “run-ins with smoking some weed and doing some things” and “encountering the same people that I grew up with that’s going to lead her into the same path that I went down.”

    “Me being gone is not helping,” he told the court. “I’m not there to pull her from that. The only thing I can do for her is try to get her out … No matter what we do, it’s who we’re around. I don’t want that for her.”

    It was here that Benitez asked for the girl to step forward and for the marshal to “putt cuffs on her,” a transcript of his remarks notes.

    After the marshal walked Puente’s daughter to the jury box, the judge had her placed inside it where her father sat and in “somewhere from a few seconds to four minutes,” the judge had the cuffs removed.

    “How did you like how those cuffs felt on you?” Benitez asked the teenager.

    “I didn’t like it,” she replied.

    “How did you like sitting up there?” Benitez said.

    “I didn’t like it,” she repeated.

    He responded:

    Good. That was the message I was hoping to get to you. So your dad’s made some serious mistakes in his life, and look at where it’s landed him. And as a result of that, he has to spend time away from you. And if you’re not careful, young lady, you’ll wind up in cuffs, and you’ll find yourself right there where I put you a minute ago. And then some day, you’ll look back and you’ll say to yourself, ‘Where did my life go?’ And the answer will be that you spent most of your life in and out of jail — in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out — and it will be, probably, because of drugs.

    You’re an awfully cute young, lady, and I have a feeling you have a wonderful life ahead of you. But from what I just heard about your dad — from your dad, causes me to be very troubled. You can go back to sit with your mom.

    via court filings

    via court filings

    The Judicial Council stopped just short of declaring that the judge actively violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights but instead fell back to its conclusion of judicial misconduct. The panel devoted a passage of its ruling to declare that Benitez had “no authority to order her to be physically restrained,” and acknowledged that he “ordered her to be seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”

    The court added that there was “no persuasive legal authority in his written submissions to the committee” to justify his actions.

    As for the 12-year-old boy the judge was found to have “admonished” on the same day of the incident with the 13-year-old girl, the council determined there was no misconduct in that case.

    Benitez’s tone with the boy was “stern but loud, ” witnesses said. When he asked the boy to remove his hat before he sentencing, Benitez delivered a long series of remarks to the child, and acknowledged that he could understand why the boy might be thinking to himself that “judges are mean” and that “the system’s mean.”

    “And that’s one way to feel about what’s happening today,” he said before doling out recommendations on how to stay away from drugs and jail.

    As a senior judge, Benitez was already on a lighter caseload, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The council’s decision to stop him from taking any on any more criminal cases until May 2027 isn’t exactly punitive in practical effect: he already had an arrangement not to take on any more criminal cases. Instead, he was just going preside over civil matters.

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    The post ‘You’re an awfully cute young lady’: Judge who shackled crying daughter of defendant to prove a point reprimanded as council says he had ‘no authority’ first appeared on Law & Crime.