- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

A federal appeals court has unanimously approved police “perp walks,” in which handcuffed, camera-shy defendants are paraded before cameras, claiming it may sway others from attempting crimes similar to those charged to the defendants.

The tradition does not violate a prisoner’s civil rights so long as it is not “an inherently fictional dramatization” staged solely to satisfy press curiosity, a panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 in a New York case.

The court unanimously upheld U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon’s 2001 dismissal of a lawsuit filed against Westchester County by three county jail guards suing over exposure after being charged with grand larceny.

Reporters were given a county videotape showing guards being escorted to cars from the Department of Corrections building, and told the trio would go to a courthouse where television and newspaper staffs photographed them again.

“The image of the accused being led away to contend with the justice system powerfully communicates government efforts to thwart the criminal element, and it may deter others from attempting similar crimes,” said the opinion authored by Circuit Judge Fred I. Parker and released Monday, four weeks after he died Aug. 12.

The practice of watching prisoners climb the courthouse steps — which Business Week magazine said became a “spectator sport” in 2002 with a cast of white-collar defendants — evolved greatly after presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby while being taken from Dallas police headquarters. Since that debacle, bulletproof vests have became routine for such notorious prisoners as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Defense lawyers argue that being “displayed” in such circumstances puts a person who is not convicted of anything “in a posture connoting guilt.”

Gerald B. Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said charges should be announced publicly without “this type of manipulation to gain maximum press advantage.”

The New York lawyer criticized the court for ignoring Westchester County’s release of surveillance evidence in addition to the videotape showing the guards in custody.

“This type of activity should be condemned, not approved,” said Mr. Lefcourt, who is familiar with the case but not involved. “Part of the video montage circulated surveillance videotape, which could only be used ethically at trial.”

Federal officials often use perp walks, which the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual permits as assistance to news reporters “in photographing, taping, recording or televising a law-enforcement activity” with concern for the safety and rights of those involved.

“We do not obviously ‘stage’ any perp walks,” said Marvin Smilon, spokesman for New York City U.S. Attorney James B. Comey Jr., who neither prohibits nor encourages perp walks and generally defers to the arresting agency policy.

“We instruct the agencies that work with us that they have an obligation to transport any prisoner in a safe and secure way and an appropriate way,” Mr. Smilon said yesterday , noting federal prosecutors were not involved in the Westchester case.

The opinion by Judge Parker, who was appointed to the appeals court in 1994 by President Clinton, was joined by Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a 1997 Clinton appointee, and Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs, a 1992 appointee of the first President Bush. Judges Parker and Sotomayor both were elevated from District Court judgeships to which the first President Bush named them.

Monday’s opinion used the term perp — short for perpetrator — walk with familiarity, but defined it for the unknowing: “that is, when an accused wrongdoer is led in handcuffs by the police to the courthouse, police station, or jail, has been featured in newspapers and newscasts for decades.”

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