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California federal judge under investigation after handcuffing defendant’s 13-year-old in court

He told the teen that if she didn’t stay away from drugs, she would “wind up in cuffs” and be “right back there,” according to court transcripts.

A misconduct complaint has been filed against a federal judge in California after the 13-year-old daughter of a defendant was handcuffed in court as she cried in an attempt to scare her, court documents said. 

Judge Roger Benitez
Judge Roger Benitez.U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

U.S District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego was conducting a hearing to revoke a supervised release on Feb. 13.

The defendant, who was finishing a prison sentence for drug charges, informed the judge that he was trying to leave the city to keep his daughter from people who may “lead her into the same path I went down,” according to court transcripts filed by the defendant’s lawyer. 

“You got cuffs?” Benitez, a senior judge, asked a U.S. marshal, according to court documents. 

Benitez then ordered the 13-year-old to leave the spectator area, approach the front of the courtroom and stand next to her father’s lawyer, the transcripts say.

He ordered the marshal to cuff her hands behind her back and instructed her to sit in a jury box for a few minutes, the documents say. She cried continuously, according to the court documents. 

Benitez released her and had her uncuffed. He told that her she was “an awfully cute young lady” but that if she didn’t stay away from drugs, she would “wind up in cuffs” and be “right back there where I put you a minute ago,” the documents says. 

The incident sparked an inquiry by the chief judge for the Southern District of California, Dana Sabraw, who contacted the higher 9th Circuit Court about the allegations on Feb. 17. 

The chief judge of the 9th Circuit, Mary Murguia, issued an order Tuesday confirming an investigation and saying she “identified a misconduct complaint against Judge Benitez.”

Benitez did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. 

Mayra Lopez, who represented the defendant, said in her court filing that it was the first time the man’s daughter had attended his hearings and that Benitez’s actions were “psychologically damaging and harmful.”

“Psychologists have found that shackling is ‘humiliating for young people’ who are more vulnerable to lasting harm from feeling humiliation and shame than adults” Lopez said.

Lopez did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Michele McKenzie, who represents the teen and her mother, said: “She is confused and embarrassed. She’s only 13.  

“I don’t think there’s any other way to read that experience other than an attempt to shame her and humiliate her into some sort of future action,” she said. “There’s so many ways, particularly when you’re the one in the robe, to reach out to a member of the public, to reach out to a family member, to reach out to a child and say, ‘I want good things for you,’ and that’s not the way to do it. You’re showing your power by force. That’s just not acceptable.”

McKenzie said the judge should issue a public apology or receive “public censure.” 

Benitez sentenced the girl’s father to 10 months in prison for violating terms of his supervised release, but the man was resentenced to a term of time already served by a different judge, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. 

Benitez was nominated to the bench in 2004 by President George W. Bush. His nomination was overwhelmingly opposed by a committee of the American Bar Association, which said other judges and lawyers described him as being arrogant, short-tempered and “altogether lacking in people skills.”

Benitez garnered scrutiny in 2021 when he stuck down California’s three-decade-old assault weapons ban and likened the AR-15 rifle, which has been wielded in some of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years, to a Swiss Army knife that could be used “for both home and battle.”