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Handcuffing as Excessive Force

Handcuffing as Excessive Force

Jack Ryan, J.D.

An area of liability that is sometimes given very little attention is handcuffing. Clearly, handcuffing is a frequently recurring law enforcement task, but is it a high-risk critical task? There can be little question that handcuffing is a high-frequency/high risk critical task.

Consider two cases reported in the media. The first involved a Florida neuro-surgeon, Angelo Gousse. Dr. Gousse was visiting Los Angeles for a conference at the UCLA Medical Center when he got lost attempting to find his hotel in Santa Monica. Dr. Gousse was pulled over by the police in a high-risk traffic stop. When he asked the officers what was wrong they told him he was informed that he was driving a stolen vehicle. Dr. Grousse begged the officers to check the paperwork in the vehicle’s glove compartment which would prove that he had just rented the vehicle from Budget Rental. The officers did not check the paperwork.

Dr. Grousse continuously complained about the tightness of his handcuffs, but officers failed to loosen the cuffs.

The initial jury award in Dr. Grousse’s case was 33 million dollars with the LAPD to pay 14.2 million and Budget Rental to pay 18.8 million dollars. The judge has since vacated the jury’s award, however the case exemplifies how critical handcuffing can be from the liability standpoint.

More recently, police in Highland Park, Texas have come under criticism for handcuffing and arresting a 97-year-old woman for a minor traffic warrant. It should be noted in this case, the elderly woman was handcuffed in the front rather than behind her back. According to new reports of the incident, the police responded that they have a “no-exceptions” policy.

From a policy perspective, officers should be given some discretion on handcuffing, particularly when officers are dealing with vulnerable classes such as the elderly. There have been cases where officers have assisted an elderly arrestee in putting their hands together behind their backs only to damage stiff and brittle bones. A bit of discretion may have avoided these injuries.

It must be recognized that courts have consistently held that handcuffing is a use of force and as such must meet the reasonableness requirements of Graham v. Connor. i The three-part test looks at (1) the severity of the offense suspect; (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the officer or others; and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by flight. One can imagine a court’s application of the three-part test to a 97-year-old being arrested for violating a traffic law.

Many of the reported decisions on handcuffing include facts of failing to double-lock the handcuffs or ignoring complaints that the handcuffs are too tight.

A case decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit provides a good example. Kopec v. Tate ii involved a man and a woman who had trespassed on a frozen lake at an apartment complex where the female lived.

Officer Tate responded to an anonymous call and told the couple to get off the lake. The couple complied. Officer Tate decided to document the couple’s names. When the man, Michael Kopec, refused to give his name, Officer Tate arrested him for disorderly conduct.

Within seconds of being handcuffed, Kopec lost the feeling in his right hand. Kopec began asking that the handcuffs be loosened. Kopec’s several requests were ignored for almost ten minutes before Tate loosened the cuffs. In the resulting lawsuit, Kopec claimed nerve damage that required treatment by a hand surgeon for more than a year.

In its review of Kopec’s excessive force (handcuffing) claim, the court applied the three-part test from Graham. The court noted that Kopec’s offense was minor and the officer was not initially going to arrest him. Kopec offered no threat and made no attempt to resist or escape. The court concluded that if Kopec’s claims were true, specifically that Tate had put the cuffs on too tightly and refused to respond to Kopec’s complaints, excessive force would be established. The court also rejected Officer Tate’s qualified immunity claim citing numerous court decisions holding that excessively tight handcuffs may constitute excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.

Policy Questions:

  • Do officers have some discretion when dealing with vulnerable classes such as the elderly or emotionally disturbed?
  • Does policy dictate double-locking and checking for tightness?
  • Does policy dictate an immediate response to a suspect’s complaints with respect to tightness of handcuffs?

i 490 U.S. 386 (1989).

ii Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772 (3rd Cir. 772 ( 3/17/2004)


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  • Photo_user_blank_big

    dennis1339

    about 3 years ago

    2 Comments

    Way too tight was my punishment. Neighbors reported I looked suspicious when watching a rental home as the tenant moved out; didn't want them taking my appliances. I said as much to a neighbor who asked what I was doing. Once the police rolled up however there was nothing I could do to explain, I was accused of all sorts of things, being agressive, drunk, on drugs, looking too nervous, etc. Cuffs went on and clamped tight. I was thrown in the back of the squad car to lay on top of the cuffs since I couldn’t maneuver, This hurt incredibly bad. I complained over and over how much it hurt. Laid there for 30 minutes while vehicle was searched. Cuffs came off and told to go home. Told this was punishment for "freaking out the neighbors". Days later my wrist is numb and have no feeling in my thumb. I wish cops would experience what I went though. Maybe they would be less sadistic in their treatment of citizens. BTW, I'm 57 year old retired auto worker, the cop was rookie maybe 25 years old. I posed no threat and did my best to cooperate with them. After this experience I've lost a good measure of respect for police.

  • Im000112_max50

    inspectorgadget7389

    over 3 years ago

    108 Comments

    There can be some discretion on the part of officers, but in many cases there is not. For example, the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, has a blanket policy that every prisoner brought into the jail must be in handcuffs. NO EXCEPTIONS. We had a 90 something year old brought in for aggravated assault after he bashed another 90 year old in the head with his cane in the nursing home they lived in. The suspect was so old and in in such ill health that regular handcuffs couldn't be used. Luckily I just happened to have brought an antique pair of late 1800s handcuffs in that day to show off and we had to use them to cuff the guy. In another case police brought in a 103 year old WWI vet initially for murder. It was later determined to be self defense, but even in his old age he had been able to grab his old bolt action rifle and fire a killing shot with it. Sometimes the elderly can be just as dangerous as the young. As for the mentally ill, the violence they are capable of is legendary. You can never be too careful. We had a young woman escorted from the jail to the county hospital to give birth and she leaped off the exam table and outran deputies and hospital police to escape in a waiting getaway car. Having fought (sometimes intensely) the elderly, mentally ill, pregnant women, dwarfs, and drug / alcohol addled I can say you should always handcuff. I work now in a state prison and the policy for transport of offenders is everyone gets cuffed no matter how old, what mental state or medical condition (other than dead) unless such restraint interferes with life-saving medical treatment. Why do they dictate this? Because inmates in all the aforementioned categories have escaped, attempted escape and assaulted staff when not cuffed.

  • Photo_user_blank_big

    koda2003

    almost 5 years ago

    2 Comments

    Yes to all three questions. All Law Enforcement Agencies have Discretion when dealing with vulnerable calsses such as elderely or emotionally disturbed people.

    Policy is such, it leaves discretion up to the Officer, Deputy, or Trooper Etc; on wheather or not to cuff someone for investagtory puprpose. Cuffing someone in the event of an arrest is required by all Law Enforcement Agencies Policy for the following reason, You wouldn't if in your right mind go off and hit a suspect with cuffs on would you? This being said, not all Cops are in there right mind when arresting someone. Some get emotional about the situation, some are burnt out and take the stress out on the suspect etc. Cuffing an individual is to seperate the threat of of injury etc to the officer, the person being arrested or detained, and other inicent persons around. Double Locking is a required process of action and should always detailed in a report under perjury. the width of your index finger should be able to slip in and out of the space left between the wrist and the cuff itself for secure and safe restraining. Hinged Cuffs work excellent for minimum movement if that is what officers are worried about. All of this I know due to my past Reserve Police Officer Experience.

  • Fear_max50

    lcablue

    almost 5 years ago

    34 Comments

    The guys hand was numbd because he was on a FROZEN LAKE!! I love it, are rules being made by a bunch of people who sit behind desks and know nothing but what somebody read to them out of a book in law school. Now I do agree cops should use a little common sense with the whole tight handcuff issue (i.e. two finger rule, ect....) but we need to police ourselves!!! Not have regulations put down upon us by those who know nothing about what the job is about or have never had to handcuff a "real" bad guy after a good fight. But what do I know, I'm just a cop.

  • Photo_user_blank_big

    swatj10

    almost 5 years ago

    760 Comments

    I do believe these Officers in these stories need a bit of remedial training. I was taught by a LEO how to properly apply handcuffs. One must be sure that they are applied to where one can put 2 fingers between the handcuff and wrist of the arrested suspect, be sure the handcuffs are double locked to avoid the handcuffs from being tightend by manipulation. Furthermore, I was taught that hand cuffs are to be used for protection of self, property and third party. I hope I do not come off as a know it all. This is just food for thought a rule of thumb. Now I understand, in a High Incident situation the adrenaline is pumpin' and to that end I say this be careful out there my brothers and sisters in blue I respect you and I appreciate the job that you do and putting you lives in harms way day in and day out.

  • Fmf_badge_max50

    Desertfox1A

    about 5 years ago

    562 Comments

    It all comes down to common sense, in the use of any type of restraining device. You do what you have to do at the time the arrest is being made. When the situation is under control and calmed down, check you cuffs, shackles or what ever you have to use, making sure that they are not restricting the flow of blood to the extremities. Or compressing against any the nerve bundles in the wrist or ankle. Some of you cry out that you should always cuff everybody behind their backs. Working in the ER I have seen one older arrestee, a 80+y/o male, brought in with torn flesh and broken shoulder at the ball joint. There is always an exception to the rule, if the person is cooperative during their arrest you do not have to clamp the cuffs down so tight that it cuts circulation off. In the case of the elderly, you have to use real discretion in cuffing them. They frequently have what is called “onion skin” which is very thin skin from taking certain medications. These same individuals also will have brittle bone syndrome, which needs no description. In these types of arrestees trauma occurs with very little force, sometimes just rubbing the skin with your hand can tear the skin. The slightest pressure on the bones can cause severe fractures, sometimes as severe as a compound fracture.

    There are people out there who have medical problems that put them at risk of injury when handled roughly. Some of them could bleed to death on you when they receive lacerations during the arrest or when cuffing them. In some cases, the bleeding is not evident until you see large blood blisters under the skin or the person starts to complain about severe abdominal pain or suddenly becomes drowsy and/or non-responsive. If the skin is torn the bleeding cannot be controlled with tight compresses, these people cannot wait for an ambulance to arrive on scene before first aid is given. So after the arrest take time to assess the elderly person’s condition, their risk for injury secondary to the use of any type of force in the arrest.

    Be aware of these types of people, and handle accordingly. Do not put yourselves at risk, but do not let yourself be liable for excessive force or wrongful death in handling the elderly arrestee. This is only my opinion but from a medical viewpoint.

    Peace be with you and be safe on your rounds.

  • New_me_max50

    jdtorres28

    over 5 years ago

    94 Comments

    There's two sides to every story but your going to get what you dish out. If that guy Kopec had just given the Officer his name, he wouldn't have been in handcuff's from the start, tight or not....just as much his fault as the Officer's if you ask me. Those who have nothing to hide don't have a problem with giving out there name, so he was right to arrest him. But yes, I think policy is not just policy, discretion should be used where necessary.

  • Pawnee_shoulder_patch_1_max50

    pawnee907

    over 5 years ago

    6 Comments

    if your dealing with an idiot for a suspect as I usually do and you end up fighting them to get the cuffs on after they start complaining about the tightness just tell them that they are brand new cuffs and after thier broken in they'll loosen up

  • P3_max50

    madog87

    over 5 years ago

    894 Comments

    this is why i carry the "tightness numbered" cuffs by asp. but i gota agree with most of you dont break the law and you dont need to worry about how tight the cuffs are on.

  • 38-nypdneverforget_max50

    sgtgopd

    over 5 years ago

    3680 Comments

    while this study indicates the qualification of force set down in Graham it lacks a concurrent study on the concept of non-compliance as resisitance as well as a numerical justification based on the number of officers injured
    overcoming resistance. Bottome line, no one really wants to be arrested and they are going to fight you when the cuffs come out. YOu can always loosen teh cuffs but its hard to do so from the ER with ice on your head

  • 38-nypdneverforget_max50

    sgtgopd

    over 5 years ago

    3680 Comments

    I'll concede that handcuffing is a form of force however when there is a question of officer and public safety or bruising an offender I vote that the cuffs go on.

  • 02-17-07_0940_1__max50

    briankrogers

    over 5 years ago

    78 Comments

    You will never know the outcome of a person till its the last minute. then it is too late.

  • 4320_1149675455386_1032583943_439930_6198449_n_max50

    HeinrichLightle

    over 5 years ago

    138 Comments

    Lame article. Handcuffing is necessary for everyone's safety!

  • Photo_user_blank_big

    mdburgener

    over 5 years ago

    6 Comments

    Okay if you think handcuffs are excessive when people that are breaking the law is excessive then what on god's green earth do you think that LEO are suppose to use. Dont break the law then you dont have to worry about wearing extra jewlery.

  • Photo_user_blank_big

    blkdragon1212

    over 5 years ago

    248 Comments

    Common intelligence, is not so common anymore. Every person who has logged more than eight hours in a patrol car should understand that getting a suspect under control must be done safely, and in some situations, quickly. Sure, if time permits you can relax and lock the cuffs. In far too many situations it has been my experience that this is not always possible, at least in the short term.

    Once I have secured the suspect, or suspects. Made sure they are not carrying any weapons, I will, in a safe place, adjust the cuffs for comfort at that time. When the stuff is hitting the fan, is not time to playing with locking cuffs.

    We get in trouble more often in excessive force incidents, not because we have done anything wrong. It is because we fail to articulate our actions in a way that the reasons for our actions could be understood.

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