On August 21, 2018, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Hansen v. Aper[i], which is instructive regarding the Sixth Circuit’s requirements for a Fourth Amendment claim when handcuffing a suspect too tightly. The relevant facts of Hansen are as follows:
On September 28, 2013, Aper observed Hansen driving almost twenty miles per hour over the speed limit on U.S. Highway 2 in Michigan and initiated a traffic stop. Hansen was accompanied by another passenger. As he was talking with Hansen and his passenger, Aper smelled marijuana. Aper asked Hansen to get out of the car and Hansen complied. Aper then handcuffed Hansen. Hansen stood outside the patrol vehicle for about five minutes while his car was searched, revealing two metal baking trays, marijuana, a silver Taurus handgun, and a marijuana roach. Aper then handcuffed the other passenger and put both men in the patrol vehicle. Aper testified that he was instructed on the Michigan Police Department’s handcuffing policies and that he received training on the proper use of handcuffs. He further testified that handcuffs are generally tested for tightness by placing a finger between the cuff and the arrestee’s wrist.
Once Hansen was in the car, he told Aper that he had “extremely high blood pressure,” that “the cuffs are tight,” and that they hurt. Aper admitted that Hansen “made reference to the handcuffs bothering him” and “complained of discomfort.” According to Hansen, Aper responded that handcuffs “are supposed to hurt” and did not check the cuffs to see if they were too tight. Aper, however, stated that he did check the cuffs to see if they were too tight, concluded that they were on properly, and attributed Hansen’s discomfort to the fact that he was leaning back and putting more pressure on his wrists.
Hansen estimated that he remained in handcuffs for about thirty minutes, possibly up to forty minutes. He complained to Aper once more but did not say anything else “because, you know, it wasn’t to my benefit to say anything.” However, he testified that he was “squirming” and “in visible pain.” After the cuffs were removed, Hansen stated that he had indentations on his wrists. He did not take any photographs and could not remember whether he showed his passenger his wrists. He did not show Aper his wrists.[ii] [internal citations omitted]
Hansen sought medical treatment approximately six days after the arrest. He complained of numbness and weakness and a specialist ultimately opined that the injury could have been caused by a crush type injury to a nerve in the wrist area. It was also noted that the after Hansen filed suit in this case, the medical expert for Officer Aper opined that there was no objective finding that Hansen suffered an injury traceable to when Officer Aper handcuffed him.
Hansen filed suit in federal court an alleged that Officer Aper violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures by handcuffing him too tight and causing injury. Aper filed a motion for qualified immunity and the district court denied the motion, citing a dispute of material facts. Aper then appealed the denial of qualified immunity to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals first noted that an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for discretionary functions, such as how to apply handcuffs, unless (1) the officer violated the Fourth Amendment and (2) the law was clearly established such than another reasonable officer in the same situation would have known that his conduct was unlawful.
The court also stated that the “right to be free from excessively forceful handcuffing” is clearly established in the Sixth Circuit. They also described a Sixth Circuit test for determining if a plaintiff has made a handcuffing claim that will survive summary judgment. The court stated
[A] plaintiff must offer sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact that: (1) he or she complained the handcuffs were too tight; (2) the officer ignored those complaints; and (3) the plaintiff experienced ‘some physical injury’ resulting from the handcuffing.” Morrison, 583 F.3d at 401. With respect to the injury element, we have held that plaintiff testimony of bruising, swelling, or discoloration while in the handcuffs is sufficient by itself to survive summary judgment. Id. at 403-04 (gathering cases).[iii] [emphasis added]
The court then applied the test above to Hansen’s case. Aper admitted that Hansen complained about the handcuffs, but he claims that he did check them, and they were on correctly. Hansen claims that Aper did not check fit, but rather told him that handcuff’s were supposed to hurt. Hansen also produced medical records that indicated that he suffered an injury due to handcuffing.
Aper cited three cases that he argued allow the court of appeals to rule in his favor in spite of the test in Morrison. However, each of these cases were distinguishable from Morrison the facts of Hansen’s case. Two of the cases involved handcuffing of only 5-10 minutes, as opposed to 30-45 minutes, and in the other case, the plaintiff did not allege an injury. Thus, these cases did not help Aper.
The court of appeals then held
Aper was on notice that handcuffing violates the Fourth Amendment if the arrestee is handcuffed, complains about the tightness, law enforcement ignores the complaint, and the arrestee suffers injury. Therefore, the district court correctly denied Aper qualified immunity.[iv] [emphasis added]
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity.
[i] No. 17-2220 (6th Cir. Decided August 21, 2018 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 7
[iv] Id. at 10