A federal judge is facing a misconduct investigation after he supposedly had a teenage girl, who had not been accused of any crime, placed in handcuffs in his courtroom in order to scare the girl out of abusing drugs, like her father has done in the past.
On February 13, defendant Mario Puente appeared in the courtroom of Senior Judge Roger Benitez of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California for a revocation hearing. During the hearing, Puente admitted that, after serving five years in connection to an undisclosed drug offense, he had relapsed into drug use and violated the terms of his supervised release on five different occasions.
However, during the allocution phase of the hearing, Puente explained that while he did use drugs while under supervised release, he had also completed a drug treatment program after he committed four of the five violations. The last violation, which occurred after he entered treatment, came about when he injured his ankle and was prescribed opiate painkillers.
Puente stated that he now wanted to leave San Diego in order to escape "negative peers" who encouraged him to relapse and to start a new life for his family. In particular, Puente expressed concern about his 13-year-old daughter, who was sitting in the courtroom that day to support her father, and whose behavior indicates that she may follow in his footsteps regarding substance abuse.
"[E]verywhere and anywhere I turn, I know somebody," in San Diego, Puente said, according to a sentencing memorandum, adding that he feared such people might "lead her into the same path I went down."
After listening to Puente's concerns about his daughter, Judge Benitez identified the girl in the gallery. He then asked a U.S. marshal to place the girl in handcuffs and bring her next to her father's attorney. The marshal did as Benitez requested, putting handcuffs on the girl, who was crying by that time, and bringing her into the front of the courtroom next to Puente's attorney.
Benitez then suggested the marshal guide the girl, who was still crying, to the jury box, and the marshal complied. While the teen stood in the jury box, Benitez told her, "[D]on’t go away. Look at me," the memorandum claimed. Benitez then asked the girl to consider how she felt standing in court wearing handcuffs, and she replied that she "didn’t like it."
Finally, Benitez warned the girl that, even though she is "an awfully cute young lady," she may "wind up" back in court wearing handcuffs again, if she associates with the wrong people or dabbles in substance abuse. Benitez then recommended that Puente serve a 10-month sentence for the violations with no supervised release to follow.
Puente's attorney, Mayra Lopez, alleged in the follow-up sentencing memorandum that Benitez's actions were "psychologically damaging and harmful" to the girl and that Puente blamed himself for failing to protect her. Lopez recommended that Puente be sentenced to time served without further supervised release so that he can follow through with his plans to relocate out of San Diego.
Four days after the incident, Puente's case was reassigned to a different judge, who ultimately followed Lopez's recommendation and re-sentenced Puente to time served.
A misconduct complaint has also been filed against Benitez. Benitez, a 72-year-old Cuban native, was nominated to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate the following year.
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