||THIRD CIRCUIT AFFIRMS IMMUNITY FOR OFFICER IN EXCESSIVE FORCE HANDCUFFING CASE

THIRD CIRCUIT AFFIRMS IMMUNITY FOR OFFICER IN EXCESSIVE FORCE HANDCUFFING CASE

On June 28, 2018, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided Graham-Smith v. City of Wilkes-Barre, et al. [i], in which the court examined whether an officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he handcuffed a woman and forcefully escorted her out of a business.  The relevant facts of Graham-Smith are as follows:

Graham-Smith was involved in a car accident with another automobile on the morning of November 12, 2012. Graham-Smith acted “nervous and agitated” at the scene of the accident. She crossed the street to go to Luzerne Bank, though Graham-Smith disputes that her conduct constitutes the Pennsylvania misdemeanor of leaving the scene of an accident. In the bank, Graham-Smith was visibly shaken and upset.

Gribble, a police officer, arrived at the scene of the accident approximately six minutes later. After speaking with the driver of the other car involved in the accident, Gribble learned that Graham-Smith had left the scene. He determined that Graham-Smith was the owner of the other car, and eventually arrived at the bank. Gribble ordered Graham-Smith to return to the scene of the accident, but she did not.

When deposed, Gribble testified that Graham-Smith told him on previous occasions that she had “psychiatric issues,” and was “on some medication or medications.” However, none of these medications were for psychiatric treatment. Gribble testified that he believed Graham-Smith was “not speaking rationally,” and that her agitation was escalating to a point where he believed she might harm herself or someone else.

Police officers in Wilkes-Barre, including Gribble, are required to complete 40 annual hours of training related to their professional responsibilities, which includes training on when to petition for mental health examinations. During his interaction with Graham-Smith at the bank, Gribble believed it was necessary to take Graham-Smith to the hospital for a mental health examination. Graham-Smith refused to leave her chair when prompted by Gribble, and wrapped herself around the chair. Gribble pulled her thumb back to get Graham-Smith out of the chair, which Graham-Smith admits was in compliance with the Wilkes-Barre Police Department’s Use of Force Policy. He handcuffed her and removed her from the bank. There are disputes regarding whether Gribble’s actions in removing Graham-Smith from the bank fell under the Use of Force Policy. Graham-Smith complained about the tightness of the handcuffs, and it is disputed whether Gribble examined the handcuffs in response.

Gribble transported Graham-Smith to the hospital, where she was involuntarily committed for a mental health evaluation. Medical professionals determined she did not require psychiatric treatment. She was given pain medication at the hospital. Nearly two years later, in October 2014, Graham-Smith saw a doctor for pain and loss of sensation in her hands, which she associated with Gribble’s use of handcuffs. The physician noted that Graham-Smith had been involved in a motor vehicle accident as well. This doctor ordered an electromyogram to assess Graham-Smith’s nerves for ulnar compression neuropathy or carpal tunnel syndrome. The results of this exam are not in the record, nor was the physician deposed, but according to Graham-Smith the doctor assessed Graham-Smith to have carpal tunnel syndrome. Graham-Smith was never charged with misdemeanor leaving the scene of an accident.”[ii]

Graham-Smith filed suit in federal district court and claimed that the officer violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment by seizing her, handcuffing her, and putting the handcuffs under too tight.  The district court granted the defendant city and officer’s motion for summary judgment.  Graham-Smith appealed the grant of summary judgment to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals; however, on appeal, she only challenged summary judgment regarding the excessive force claim.

The two specific instances in this case that Graham-Smith alleged constituted excessive force were (1) lifting her arms and “running” her out of the bank after she was handcuffed, and (2) putting the handcuffs on too tight and not adjusting them when she complained to the officer.

The court started by noting the general legal principles that control this case.  The court stated

The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”       

[T]he test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application . . . .” “The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” “[I]ts proper application requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether [s]he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” These circumstances include the severity of injury resulting from the force used, though the absence of injury does not legitimize otherwise excessive force.[iii] [emphasis added][internal citations omitted]

The court also noted that they are required to view the officer’s use of force from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, at the moment the officer used the force at issue.  The court further stated that they must also consider that

[n]ot every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers . . . violates the Fourth Amendment.[iv] [emphasis added]

The court then examined the relevant facts of this case.  First, they observed that it was not disputed that Graham-Smith refused to comply with the officer’s order to return to the scene of the traffic accident.  It is also not disputed that she took physical measures to prevent the officer from removing her from the bank, particularly gripping onto the chair on which she sat.  The court stated, “a reasonable officer would certainly view wrapping oneself around a chair to prevent being moved as resistance.”[v]

Next, the court considered Graham-Smith’s allegation that the officer raised her hands up behind her back and “ran” her out of the bank.  While the officer disputes this version of events, the court, at this stage of the litigation, must view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.  As such, the court accepts the plaintiff’s version of events for this analysis.  The court stated that, while the severity of Graham-Smith’s crimes were relatively minor, the officer still had to remove her from the bank.  Further, the force that an officer uses in any given situation must be “objectively reasonable,” not “the least amount of force necessary” or the most “ideal” force.  Particularly, the court stated

With respect to this conduct specifically, Graham-Smith has not adduced sufficient evidence to connect this conduct to the injuries she alleges, though that is not dispositive. Graham-Smith has not adduced sufficient evidence to create a material dispute as to the reasonableness of this conduct. We do not determine that Gribble’s use of force was ideal or even the minimal force necessary when viewed in hindsight: those determinations are beyond the scope of the legal inquiry. We only hold that a reasonable officer in the moment could have conducted himself similarly.[vi]

Thus, the court held that, based on the circumstances, the officer acted reasonably under the Fourth Amendment.

Lastly, the court considered whether the officer used excessive force when failed to check the tightness of the handcuffs after Graham-Smith complained to him that they were too tight.  The court noted that the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence to create a material dispute as to whether the officer violated the Fourth Amendment by putting the handcuffs on her too tight. The court examined precedent from other Circuits and noted that the

[P]ersuasive authority of our sister Circuits holding that the reasonableness of tight handcuffing did not raise a question of fact for the jury where the resulting injury was de minimis.       

As discussed previously, excessive force is not determined by injury alone. However, the unreasonableness of handcuffing requires some indication that it was done unnecessarily or excessively.[vii] [emphasis added]

In this case, the plaintiff failed to produce evidence to show that she was injured beyond some superficial lacerations.  The doctor’s report that she had carpel tunnel twenty-three (23) months after the incident was not sufficient, and it also mentioned that she had been involved in a motor vehicle accident in addition to being “offensively handcuffed.”

The court then held that without sufficient evidence to establish a material dispute for a jury, the district court properly granted summary judgment to the officer and the city in this case.

Graham-Smith also argued that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity.  However, in order to defeat the officer’s motion for qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show that (1) the officer violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and (2) that the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer in the same situation would have known the conduct was unlawful.

The court of appeals then reiterated that Graham-Smith failed to show that the officer violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment in this case.  As such, she failed to meet the first prong needed to defeat qualified immunity.  Thus, the officer is entitled to qualified immunity in this case.

The court of appeals affirmed the decision the district court in favor of the defendants in this case.

___________________________________________

CITATIONS:

[i] No. 17-2110 (3th Cir. Decided June 28, 2018)

[ii] Id. at 2-4

[iii] Id. at 5-6

[iv] Id. at 7 (quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. at 396)

[v] Id. at 7

[vi] Id. at 7-8

[vii] Id. at 8

By |2019-01-22T21:34:18+00:00January 22nd, 2019|Legal updates|

About the Author:

Brian Batterton is an attorney in the State of Georgia and currently a Lieutenant with the Cobb County Police Department. He has been in law enforcement since 1994 and obtained his Juris Doctorate in 1999 from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He has served as an officer in Uniform Patrol, a detective in Criminal Investigations, a Corporal in the Training Unit and as a Sergeant in Uniform Patrol. Brian is currently assigned as the Legal Officer to the Chief of Police. In addition to his work at the police department, he also lectures for the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute (LLRMI) on both criminal law and procedure topics, as well as, police civil liability.