Handcuffing Defendants in Spanish Courtrooms May Skew the Judicial Process

"Suspects in restraints” is a European project focused on how suspects are presented in a courtroom, before the jury, the public and the media​ and how restraining them affects the impartiality of the judicial process.

One of the most basic principles of the human rights protection system is the presumption of innocence. This constitutes a safeguard against unjust convictions and is a legal instrument to ensure that everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty.

Police use handcuffs as a matter of routine, not based on whether the detainee is dangerous or a flight risk

Rights International Spain (RIS), a Liberties member, has been in charge of conducting investigations in Spain under the Europe-wide "Suspects in restraints” project, which has revealed important findings.

The report calls for the Directive on presumption of innocence to be transposed into Spanish law. The legal framework should also be amended so that it links the presumption of innocence with the use of restraint measures, and to include measures in case of non-compliance with the public authorities' obligation not to refer to suspects or accused persons as guilty.

While the use of restraints such as handcuffs is subject to the principle of proportionality, the report finds that law enforcement use handcuffs as a matter of routine, rather than basing their use on founded justification on a case-specific basis, as required by the Directive. Detainees are always handcuffed during transfers. This is how they arrive in court, and a handcuffed detainee is the first image people see, both in the courtroom and in the media.

Prosecutors disagree, but seeing a defendant in restraints can seriously effect how they are perceived in court

Judges and prosecutors reported that detainees are not usually handcuffed. However, defence lawyers remarked that it is common practice. As for the perception of guilt associated to the use of restraint measures, there is a range of opinions. The report concludes that, for police officers, seeing detainees in handcuffs does not influence the legal process because they are professionals and are used to it. Some judges believe that it influences everyone though, including the judges themselves. This is a view that most lawyers also hold. All professionals agree that the use handcuffs, and seeing how they are used, have a negative impact on society as a whole. But the importance of how the media report on their use and the impact this has on both the judiciary and public opinion has also been highlighted.

The investigation reveals the importance of staging. Some professionals claim that accused people should sit next to their lawyers, making the scenario as neutral as possible. Likewise, the need of adequate judicial facilities to avoid excessive public exposure of handcuffed detainees is also crucial.

Another concern is about the way the police communicate with the media and the general public. For some professionals, the source of the problem lies there, as journalists collect press releases from the Ministry of the Interior or videos of police operations circulated by the police themselves.

Better regulations and better communication needed

Part of the solution could be to establish a more precise regulation on the use of restraint measures based on their prohibition and on the need to justify any exceptions. There is also a need to establish communication channels that operate more fluidly among all agents involved in criminal proceedings, and to promote training in the area of presumption of innocence for lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police and the media. In general, effective remedies should be guaranteed in case of violation of the right to presumption of innocence.