Federal judge faces probe after he orders handcuffing of 13-year-old girl in gallery in 'scared straight' approach

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A federal judge in San Diego faces an ethics probe initiated by the judiciary after a transcript indicated that he ordered the handcuffing of a 13-year-old girl during a probation revocation hearing for her father.

The allegations against U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of the Southern District of California surfaced in a Feb. 23 sentencing memorandum filed on behalf of the girl’s father, Mario Puente, according to Above the Law, which broke the news.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, KGTV and Law & Crime also have coverage.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco confirmed the probe in a Feb. 28 press release and order.

The incident happened during a Feb. 13 hearing, according to a sentencing memorandum filed by Puente’s lawyers with Federal Defenders of San Diego. Puente said he wanted to leave San Diego to get a fresh start. He also said he was worried about his 13-year-old daughter because she was hanging out with the wrong people, and he wanted to move her so she wouldn’t follow his same path.

Puente had served five years in prison on a drug distribution conspiracy charge, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Judge Roger Benitez headshot U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez. Photo by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, PD US Courts, via Wikimedia Commons.

Puente’s daughter was seated in the gallery. Several minutes after Puente expressed concern for his daughter, Benitez turned to the U.S. marshal and asked, “You got cuffs?” According to the sentencing memorandum, Benitez ordered the girl to approach the bench and told the U.S. marshal to handcuff her.

As the marshal complied with the handcuffing order, the girl began to cry, according to the sentencing memorandum. Benitez told the marshal to put the girl in the jury box. As he did so, the girl continued to cry.

After a long pause, Benitez released the girl, according to the sentencing memorandum. He then asked the girl how the cuffs felt on her, and she said she didn’t like it. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which referred to the judge’s actions as “scared straight” tactics, reports on what happened next.

“Good,” Benitez told the girl. “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 then told the girl that she was “an awfully cute young lady,” but he is troubled by her father’s concerns.

“I hope the next time you’re tempted to use drugs, even weed, OK, even weed, you’ll remember what happened here today,” Benitez said. “I hope you remember this mean, old face.”

The case was transferred to a new judge, who sentenced Puente to time served with no supervised release.

Benitez is an appointee of former President George W. Bush. A substantial majority of the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary had given Benitez a “not qualified” rating in 2004 after his nomination.

“Over and over, I received negative comments regarding Judge Benitez’s judicial temperament,” said Richard M. Macias in a written statement explaining the rating to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Macias was the circuit member for the evaluation of Benitez, who had been a federal magistrate and a state judge.

“Interviewees repeatedly told me that Judge Benitez displays inappropriate judicial temperament with lawyers, litigants and judicial colleagues; that all too frequently, while on the bench, Judge Benitez is arrogant, pompous, condescending, impatient, short-tempered, rude, insulting, bullying, unnecessarily mean and altogether lacking in people skills.”

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a 9th Circuit judge will review the ethics allegation against Benitez and decide whether to dismiss the ethics charge, take corrective action or form a special committee to investigate.

An administrative law clerk for Benitez told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an email that he “is not permitted to comment on matters pending before the court.”

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