State v. Rickett

State v. Rickett, 2016 MT 168 (July 12, 2016) (Shea, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court abused its discretion by requiring Rickett to wear a leg brace during trial.

Short Answer: Yes, but it was not a structural error, and there was no reasonable possibility the defendant was prejudiced.


Facts: In July 2012 the state charged Rickett with aggravated kidnapping, burglary, intimidation, and escape based on its contention that he escaped a pre-release center, and kidnapped his former foster mother to gain access to the safe at a Bozeman restaurant where she worked as a bookkeeper.

The district court held a trial over three days in February 2014. Rickett appeared in person wearing street clothes with a leg brace on his right leg underneath his pants. The brace was required by sheriff’s deputies for security in transporting prisoners.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Before jury selection, Rickett asked the court to order sheriff’s deputies to remove his leg brace, stating it created a large bulge in his pants and would be noticed by the jury. The district court denied the request but told Rickett he could raise it again before standing or walking in front of the jury. Before taking the stand on the last day of trial, Rickett renewed his request and the district court denied it, stating it was sufficiently concealed that it did not prejudice Rickett. The jury found Rickett guilty of 3 of the 4 charges. The district court designated Rickett a persistent felony offender and sentenced him to Montana State Prison for 40 years with no time suspended. Rickett appeals the denial of his request to remove the brace, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Art. II, § 17 of the Montana Constitution both entitle criminal defendants to appear before a jury free of shackles and other physical restraints. In Herrick, the Court adopted a two-part test for determining whether a trial court abused its discretion in restraining a criminal defendant during trial. 2004 MT 323. Here, the district court did not apply the Herrick test, which was an abuse of discretion. However, the error is harmless if it is not structural, and the Court concludes the error here is not structural. Rickett’s presumption of innocence was not undermined. There was no reasonable possibility Rickett was prejudiced.