Los Angeles Times

Judge under review after having teen cuffed

The move was meant to scare the girl away from her father’s path of doing drugs.

- By Alex Riggins Riggins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

A misconduct complaint against San Diego-based U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who ordered a U.S. marshal to handcuff a defendant’s 13-year-old daughter during a hearing, will be reviewed by a higher court, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday.

The handcuffin­g exercise, which brought the girl to tears in the courtroom, was intended to scare her away from doing drugs and ending up in court like her father, Benitez explained to her, according to a transcript of the Feb. 13 hearing.

Instead, the father’s defense attorney described the incident in a motion as “psychologi­cally damaging and harmful.”

Four days after the hearing, the chief judge for the Southern District of California, Dana Sabraw, contacted his counterpar­t at the 9th Circuit “regarding allegation­s of judicial misconduct” by Benitez, according to a court order confirming the inquiry filed Tuesday.

Now a 9th Circuit judge will review the complaint, conduct an inquiry and decide what action to take, which could include dismissal of the complaint, corrective action levied against Benitez, or the formation of a special committee to further investigat­e. The initial review will be completed by 9th Circuit Chief Judge Mary Murguia, unless she happens to be disqualifi­ed from reviewing a complaint against Benitez, in which case the most senior active judge who is not disqualifi­ed would take over.

Murguia wrote in the order that she publicly disclosed the complaint against Benitez “in order to ‘maintain public confidence in the Judiciary’s ability to redress misconduct or disability.’”

Benitez declined to comment Tuesday through his administra­tive law clerk.

The incident was first made public Monday by the legal blog Above the Law and occurred during a hearing for the girl’s father. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and his appointed attorney from Federal Defenders of San Diego did not respond to messages.

The hearing was held to revoke probation for the girl’s father, following completion of a five-year prison sentence on a drug distributi­on conspiracy charge and an additional five years of supervised release that was not going well.

Benitez gave the man a chance to address the court before being sentenced back to prison for violating the terms of his probation. The defendant told the judge he grew up in San Diego, which means he’s constantly running into people he knows and falling into prior bad habits.

He said the only way he believed he could turn his life around was by “leaving what I know.” Then he told Benitez his daughter was “following the same footsteps.”

The judge interrupte­d the defendant, asking him what he meant. The man told the judge: “She’s basically growing up where I grew up, so she’s encounteri­ng the same people that I grew up with that’s going to lead her into the same path that I went down.”

After some additional arguments about his case, Benitez addressed a U.S. marshal in the room.

“You got cuffs?” he asked the marshal. Then he addressed the defendant’s daughter in the gallery, asked for her name, and then asked her to approach and stand next to her father’s attorney.

“Do me a favor,” Benitez told the marshal. “Put cuffs on her.”

The girl started to cry, according to a filing by the client’s defense attorney, Mayra Lopez.

Benitez then asked the marshal to escort her to the jury box. Lopez wrote that her client’s daughter continued to cry before Benitez released her after a “long pause.” But he did not immediatel­y let her go back to her seat.

“Now, don’t go away,” Benitez told the girl twice. “Look at me. Look at me for just a second. You see where your dad is?”

“Yes,” the girl replied. “How did you like the way those cuffs felt on you?” Benitez asked her.

“I didn’t like it,” she responded.

“How did you like sitting up there?” the judge asked.

“I didn’t like it,” the girl answered.

“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,” Benitez said.

“And then someday, 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 ... probably, because of drugs,” he said. “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 ... from your dad causes me to be very troubled.”

Benitez then told the girl to go back to her seat and proceeded with sentencing her father to 10 months in prison.

Days after the hearing, her father’s attorney filed a motion asking for a different judge to re-sentence her client. The case was transferre­d to U.S. District Judge Robert Huie, who re-sentenced him to a term of time already served. That was the “most appropriat­e sanction given the distressin­g events,” Lopez had argued.

The incident stunned many in the legal and juvenile justice community.

“I’m just really surprised that any judge, or any person, would feel the need to handcuff someone in front of others when there is absolutely no wrongdoing,” said Naomi Smoot Evans, the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national group focused on keeping children out of the legal system.

Multiple studies over the years have shown that “scared straight” tactics — which typically involve youths being exposed to harsh conditions in adult prisons — are not only ineffectiv­e but can also increase criminalit­y and delinquenc­y.

“A perception that used to exist is that we could scare someone straight,” Smoot Evans said. “If they could just see how dangerous a prison is, they would stay away ... but that doesn’t sync with what we know about adolescent brain developmen­t.”

The complaint against Benitez is not his first brush with controvers­y. In 2003, the American Bar Assn. gave Benitez a rare “not qualified” rating when President George W. Bush nominated him for the lifetime district court position. At the time he was a federal magistrate, and before that a state judge in Imperial County.

 ?? Nelvin Cepeda Union-Tribune ?? THE COMPLAINT against U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez will be reviewed by a 9th Circuit judge.
Nelvin Cepeda Union-Tribune THE COMPLAINT against U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez will be reviewed by a 9th Circuit judge.

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