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When is Painful Handcuffing Considered More Than a De Minimus Injury?

In a recent decision from the Eleventh Circuit, the court found that an officer who tightens handcuffs with the intent to cause pain may be held liable for use of excessive force. Sebastian v. Ortiz, 17-14751, 2019 WL 1187012 (11th Cir. Mar. 14, 2019). In so finding, the court used the test as laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989) and extended by Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1347 (11th Cir. 2002). Under this test, the court must determine the severity of the crime, whether the suspect imposes an immediate threat of safety to the officers, whether the suspect is actively resisting, and “the relationship between the need and amount of force used and the extent of the injury inflicted.” Sebastian, 2019 WL 1187012 at *10.

The plaintiff, Sebastian, filed suit against the defendant, Ortiz, after Sebastian was arrested for a speeding violation. Ortiz filed a motion to dismiss claiming Sebastian’s injuries were de minimus. In upholding the district court’s denial of Ortiz’s motion to dismiss, the Eleventh Circuit noted that Sebastian’s complaint alleged sufficient facts to overcome the motion to dismiss. Specifically, Sebastian alleged on July 7, 2015, he was stopped for a speeding violation. After he refused to give consent to search his vehicle, Ortiz and two other officers arrested Sebastian and searched his vehicle. Sebastian offered no resistance to the officers. Sebastian complained that the handcuffs were too tight and were cutting off circulation to his hands. Sebastian claimed that as a result of the tight handcuffs he had sustained permanent nerve damage.

The Eleventh Circuit determined that the claimed permanency of the injury in conjunction with the crime alleged (a speeding violation, which is non-criminal and punishable only by fine), was sufficient to overcome Ortiz’s motion to dismiss. The Court did recognize, however, that had Sebastian merely alleged “painful handcuffing” or that he had only suffered from minor skin abrasions the injury would have been deemed de minimus and Ortiz would have been entitled to qualified immunity. Of interest, this was a dismissal case as opposed to summary judgment.

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