SailorsAllen Law

Bursting at the Seams, Trial Attire

August 28, 2017, the MN COA decided to publish a case made from the perspective from someone else’s shoes.   The case is State vs. Hazley, (A16-1988).   In this case, Mr. Hazley wanted to court to buckle down and make a decision about his case.   He had a court trial and was wearing jail clothes during the trial.

He was charged with third-degree burglary after he was discovered in a restricted area of a Macy’s store placing unpaid merch in a garbage bag. The day before his trial was scheduled to begin, the district court told appellant that he would “have to be out of [his] jail clothes” during the scheduled jury trial.  The next day, appellant waived his right to a jury trial. Third-degree burglary is a Felony so that means he would have a jury of 12 people.   But since he waived a jury, he would only have a trial to a judge called a court trial.   As you can imagine, court trials avoid almost all of the machinations that are done for the benefit of the jury.   You can try a case to a judge that would take two days if it was in front of a jury in a couple of hours.

When a jury is involved, optics are everything.   Trials can be are boring and jurors constantly size the defendant up during the process.  If the defendant is dressed in jail garb they look guilty.   Therefore having a client that is in jail not looking like they are in jail is the goal.  An accused should not be compelled to attend trial wearing prison or jail clothing because of the possible impairment of the presumption of innocence. Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 503, 96 S. Ct. 1691, 1692, (1976); see also U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1, “compelling” a defendant to wear jail clothes at trial is a due-process violation. State v. Lehman, 749 N.W.2d 76, 84-85 (Minn. App. 2008).  Having someone appear in jail clothes in front of a jury would be below the belt.

So keep in mind, Mr. Hazley had a court trial not in front a jury.   Judges see defendants in orange all the time so the prejudicial impact is greatly reduced.   Jurors would be bursting at the seams to convict someone who looks guilty in jail clothes.  In Estelle, the United States Supreme Court recognized that a state violates a defendant’s right to a fair trial under the Fourteenth Amendment if it compels the defendant to wear jail clothes at trial. 425 U.S. at 512, 96 S. Ct. at 1697. The Supreme Court explained that a defendant must object to being tried in jail clothes, or otherwise raise the issue to the trial court, in order to establish a constitutional violation. Id. at 512-13, 96 S. Ct. at 1697.   The Supreme Court noted that a defendant may, for strategic or tactical purposes, choose to wear jail clothes instead of street clothes, and a district court would not be required to inquire about that choice or seek a waiver from the defendant concerning the choice to forego street clothing. Id. at 512, 96 S. Ct. at 1697. The wearing of jail attire is not a constitutional issue; it is only when a defendant is compelled to wear jail clothes that his due-process rights have been violated. Id.

So what they are saying here if you don’t want to jail clothes, object to it.  Because if you don’t act like you have a bee in your bonnet, then the court will assume you are doing it strategically.   The only sitchuation I can think of if you have a card up your sleeve if the case is really minor or stupid; or stupid and minor and you want the jury to see how bad your client is being treated by being in custody.   Then having them wear the jail clothes rather than the shirt off of your back might make strategic sense.   In State v. Lehman, Lehman attacked his attorney during trial.  Wing tipped lives matter.  State v. Lehman, 749 N.W.2d 76, 84-85 (Minn. App. 2008).   Lehman had to wear jail clothes for the rest of the trial to avoid in any outbursts at the drop of a hat.  Because the jury in Lehman already knew that the defendant was in custody—they had witnessed the defendant being taken into custody following the attack—making Lehman wear jail clothes was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 85.  Hat’s off the attorney for finishing the trial.

Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure require that “[d]uring trial, an incarcerated defendant or witness must not appear in court in the distinctive attire of a prisoner.” Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.03, subd. 2(b).  However, Hazely didn’t object.  Also, it was the same judge who told him he needed to wear street clothes for his jury trial so the judge already knew he was in custody.   In going through the record with fine tooth comb, nothing in the decision showed the jail clothes were burning a hole in the judge’s pocket and influenced the decision.

Bottom line, no per se rule that appearing trial in jail clothes is unconstitutional by leaving the defendant caught with their pants down.  Unless the trial is for indecent exposure.

I will end with a story.  I tried a case for a client once who was in jail.  I gave him some clothes.  We won the trial and I was made aware of post trial victory pictures posted on Facebook while he was wearing the same trial clothes.   Needless to say, he got to keep the clothes.  Win a trial and get a shirt.  Full-service operation here.