The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco is looking into a misconduct claim against a federal judge in Southern California who allegedly intended to traumatise a 13-year-old girl by putting her in handcuffs for attending her father’s court case.
According to a sentencing memorandum filed by the defendant’s attorneys, which cited a transcript of the proceedings, US District Court Judge Roger Benitez paused a hearing on February 13 in San Diego to call up the defendant’s teenage daughter, who was attending one of her father’s hearings for the first time.
The defendant warned the judge before the event that he intended to leave the neighbourhood after his release and that he was worried about his daughter hanging around with the wrong people.
Minutes later, Judge Benitez ordered a marshal to handcuff the girl, who had been crying, and told her to sit in the jury box, according to the memorandum, which was filed February 23. She continued to cry, the document says.
There was a long pause, according to the document, and Benitez then had a marshal take the handcuffs off the girl. But before allowing her to return to her seat, he scolded the girl, called her “an awfully cute young lady” and warned that if she didn’t stay away from drugs she would wind back up in handcuffs, court documents say.
“I think the intent was to embarrass or humiliate her,” said Michele McKenzie, an attorney representing the girl and her mother.
“I think that was the very clear message sent to her by someone with tremendous amount of power.”
Benitez’ administrative law clerk told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an email that the judge “regrets that he is not permitted to comment on matters pending before the court.”
The girl attended with her aunt and a family friend to show support for her father during a hearing in which he planned to admit to violations of his supervised release and be sentenced for 10 months. The newly filed sentencing memorandum asks the court to consider the father’s time served as his sentence.
Her lawyer declined to share the seventh grader’s name to protect her identity.
“She feels bad and was made to feel bad though she has done nothing wrong,” McKenzie said to CNN. The actions of Benitez are “really out of touch with the reality,” McKenzie said. “It shows a complete lack of understanding of what families – particularly the children of those in the criminal justice system – are going through.”
Chief Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California contacted the higher court on February 17 about the allegations. Mary Murguia, the chief judge of the 9th Circuit, said in an order filed Tuesday that she reviewed court transcripts and identified a complaint.
McKenzie said her client’s humiliation was public.
“At a minimum the 9th Circuit should censure him publicly,” McKenzie said, adding that the judge’s actions “send a message that by even attending a hearing, the public could be a target.”
“I also think apologies go a long way,” said McKenzie.
Cummings calls this incident “unprecedented” in his 20 years as a legal ethics professor. “I have never heard of anything like this – targeting a young child who is there to support the defendant,” said Cummings.