People v. Sanders
Issue Before the Court: Whether the trial court violated Mr. Sanders’ constitutional
due process right by ordering him to be handcuffed while the jury announced its
verdict and was polled, without providing an on-the-record, individualized explanation
for the restraints.
Factual Background: Mr. Sanders was tried on assault and contempt charges
stemming from a fight and subsequent violations of an order of protection. Prior to
the jury returning to the courtroom to announce its verdict, defense counsel noted
Mr. Sanders was handcuffed per the court’s policy and objected. Counsel argued that
having Mr. Sanders handcuffed during the reading of the verdict and polling of the
jury could discourage jurors who might dissent from the verdict from speaking up
against it. The trial court denied counsel’s request to remove the handcuffs. The jury
then convicted Mr. Sanders of the charges and confirmed its vote during the polling.
Mr. Sanders was sentenced as a persistent felony offender to 15 years to life in prison.
Held: Yes, and the error was not harmless.
CAL Observes: The Court in this case unanimously extended the rule against
shackling without an on-the-record, individualized explanation to the verdict and jury
polling phases of the proceedings. Besides that, it did little to clarify what makes a
shackling error harmless.
The error seemed so obviously not harmless to the Court that it did not feel a need to
explain itself. Unfortunately, that means this case provides minimal to no guidance on
the harmless error analysis in shacking cases or for comparing other handcuffing cases
outside of this particular scenario.
It is also difficult to reconcile this case with the Court’s prior decisions in restraint
cases, like People v. Clyde, 18 N.Y.3d 145 (2011), which the Court cited in support of its
harmless error holding here. Clyde, who had elected to proceed pro se, was shackled
throughout his week-long trial. In a 4-3 decision, the Court found that to be error but
held that it was harmless because the evidence of guilt was overwhelming. It is
difficult to understand the difference in harm between Clyde and Mr. Sanders’ case; the
circumstances in which Clyde and Mr. Sanders were handcuffed could both negatively
influence a juror against the accused such that they would feel pressured or inclined to
confirm a conviction during the polling.
The tension in the Court of Appeals’ caselaw regarding handcuffing during criminal
proceedings leaves room for arguments to expand the contexts in which the use of
restraints is not harmless error. It also keeps open the ability to argue for the
application of Judge Lippman’s rationale in dissent in Clyde that some shackling errors
are sheltered from harmless error analysis altogether under the State constitution’s
free-standing right to a fair trial. There, Judge Lippman reasoned that it was
impossible for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as they had the
burden to do, that the handcuffs did not contribute to the verdict. Clyde presented a
situation in which the jury convicted Clyde of all the charges but the top charge was
later found legally insufficient. The Court did not go so far in Mr. Sanders’ case as to
adopt Judge Lippman’s dissent, but its lack of harmless error analysis indicates that
some shackling errors are objectively harmful. And, similarly in Mr. Sanders’ case, it is
arguably impossible to know whether the handcuffs discouraged a juror(s) from
dissenting against the guilty verdict. The same could be argued under other
This case additionally raises some thoughts on preservation. It is a reminder that
handcuffing should be preserved as both State and Federal constitutional due process
violations. Notably, the Court took the time to explain preservation in a footnote.
Trial counsel objected to the handcuffs but did not object on constitutional grounds.
Rather, counsel explained the prejudice that could come from the restraints and cited
the law generally. The Court of Appeals found the claim sufficiently preserved
because counsel’s objection made the defense’s position clear when the trial court had
an opportunity to correct the error, and that is all the preservation law requires. It is
always better to be specific when objecting, but this case is a helpful citation when
responding to preservation arguments based on a need for a more specific objection.