||SUDDEN IN-CUSTODY DEATH OF HANDCUFFED PRISONER

SUDDEN IN-CUSTODY DEATH OF HANDCUFFED PRISONER

In Day v. Wooten,[i] the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether police officers were entitled to qualified immunity where they kept a suspect handcuffed with his hands behind his back after the suspect complained of difficulty breathing. The suspect ultimately died in custody. The Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of the defendant officers’ qualified immunity defense, and held that the defendant officers did not violate the plaintiff’s clearly established rights.

The Court set forth the facts of the case as follows:

Terrell Day was eighteen years old and weighed approximately 312 pounds at the time of his death, with a history of obesity and an underlying heart condition. On September 26, 2015, Day was confronted by a loss-prevention officer outside the Burlington Coat Factory at Washington Square Mall in Indianapolis after Day apparently shoplifted a watch from the store. Day returned the watch but refused to return to the store with the loss-prevention officer. A mall security officer who joined the confrontation noticed Day had a gun in his pocket. There are varying accounts of what occurred next, but it is undisputed that a chase ensued in  which Day ran out of the mall, through the parking lot, and across a street to a gas station. He there collapsed on a grassy slope. Law enforcement soon arrived in response to a radio call describing an armed shoplifter. At this point, the gun was no longer on Day’s person, but was lying in the grass a few feet away and out of his reach.

Officer Denny, the second officer to arrive on scene, handcuffed Day behind his back with a single set of handcuffs. He testified that Day’s hands came together easily behind his back. He noticed Day was overweight, sweating, and breathing heavily. Day told the officers he was having    trouble breathing; Officer Denny told Day he had exerted himself by running and instructed him to take deep breaths in and out to slow his heart rate. Officer Denny otherwise did not observe any signs of distress or of Day’s trouble breathing.

Officer Denny initially instructed Day to remain in an upright seated position, which he believed to be the most comfortable position for Day and ideal for the officers’ safety. However, Day would not maintain this position, but instead laid down and rolled down the slope. After two attempts to keep Day seated upright, Officer Denny instead positioned Day to lie on his side. Officer Denny believed this was the best course of action to prevent Day from asphyxiating by rolling onto his stomach. While repositioning Day, Officer Denny observed Day had defecated on himself. He attributed this to Day having over-exerted himself during the chase.

Sergeant Wooten arrived shortly after Officer Denny detained Day. Sergeant Wooten monitored Day while Officer Denny completed his investigative duties as the arresting officer. Sergeant Wooten and other officers repositioned Day several times when he rolled onto his stomach. Day complained to Sergeant Wooten that he could not breathe; however, Sergeant Wooten was skeptical of these complaints because Day also claimed to have done nothing wrong and was asking to be released. All the same, Sergeant Wooten called for an ambulance to evaluate Day approximately five minutes after Day was initially detained. Sergeant Wooten observed that Day appeared to calm down and began to breathe normally.

The ambulance arrived, and two paramedics examined Day. In response to their questions, Day told the paramedics he had no preexisting medical conditions. He was able to speak to them in clear, full sentences. Their examination involved multiple tests, including listening to Day’s breathing and checking his heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood oxygen saturation. Day’s hands remained cuffed behind his back throughout the examination. The paramedics concluded Day was breathing regularly and normally. Based on their examination, the paramedics believed Day did not need to go to a hospital.

At that point, the paramedics asked Sergeant Wooten to sign a release form so they could transfer custody of Day back to law enforcement. Sergeant Wooten did so. The form he signed was called a “Treatment/Transport Refusal,” and is meant to be signed by a patient when he refuses to be transported to the hospital after being evaluated by paramedics. However, when the paramedics determine a handcuffed prisoner does not need to be transported to the hospital, they have an officer sign the form as a witness of the transfer, not as a representative of the prisoner.

Officer Denny requested a “jail wagon” to transport Day to a detention facility. When the jail wagon arrived, the driver found Day unresponsive. At that point Day was lying on his back on the asphalt with his hands still cuffed behind his back. When the driver and Sergeant Wooten attempted to stand Day up, his legs straightened and his knees locked. When Day failed to respond either verbally or physically to two “sternum rubs” (a painful stimulus administered to an unresponsive subject’s chest to invoke a reaction), the driver asked Sergeant Wooten to call a second ambulance.

The second ambulance arrived with a different team of paramedics, approximately forty-three minutes after the first ambulance had arrived. Sometime between the departure of the first ambulance and the arrival of the second, a second pair of handcuffs was added to Day’s wrists. When the paramedics arrived, Day’s eyes were open, and he was breathing, but his pulse was weak. Day was loaded into the back of the ambulance and the paramedics began to perform CPR. After attempting without success to revive Day for 30 minutes, he was pronounced dead. The coroner dispatched to the scene examined Day’s body and found no visible signs of trauma. However, the autopsy report listed his cause of death as “Sudden Cardiac Death due to Acute Ischemic Change.” Listed as contributory causes were “Sustained respiratory compromise due to hands cuffed behind the back, obesity, underlying cardiomyopathy.”

Throughout his time in custody, Day never complained the handcuffs were too tight. Day complained of trouble breathing, but never indicated this was caused or exacerbated by the handcuffs. The first team of paramedics never asked the officers to remove or modify the handcuffs or add a second pair. In addition to the coroner’s report that Day exhibited no visible signs of trauma, the autopsy report states there were no “encircling contusions” or lacerations around Day’s wrists. The only indication that the handcuffs were causing a respiratory issue was the autopsy report, which also identified for the first time his underlying heart condition.

After setting forth the relevant facts, the Court began its analysis of the case. The Court first reiterated that a defendant police officer will be entitled to qualified immunity unless the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, establishes that the defendant police officer violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and those constitutional rights were clearly established at the time of the defendant officer’s conduct. The Court further noted that a “clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.”

The Court next noted that the lower District Court defined the rights at issue as Day’s right to be free from excessively tight handcuffs and Day’s right to have the officers consider Day’s injuries in determining the appropriateness of the handcuff positioning. Although the District Court found that the defendant officers’ conduct violated Day’s rights, The Seventh Circuit concluded that there was no Seventh Circuit case precedent clearly establishing that the officers violated Day’s rights.

In arriving at this conclusion, the Seventh Circuit considered its prior case precedent of Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767 (7th Cir. 2003). The Court noted that Payne established as a right that “it was unlawful to use excessively tight handcuffs and violently yank the arms of arrestees who were not resisting arrest, did not disobey the orders of a police officer, did not pose a threat to the safety of the officers or others, and were suspected only of committing only minor crimes.” The Court then contrasted Payne from the facts which were present in Day, and explained that Day was suspected of shoplifting with a gun, which was a more serious offense than was present in Payne. The Court further noted that Day was not cooperative with police when he kept changing positions despite the officers’ instructions to remain seated upright, and by arguing with officers to let him go. More importantly, the Court noted, was the fact that Officer Denny and Sergeant Wooten did not violently yank or jerk Day’s arms, shoulders, or any of Day’s person. The Court further noted that in Payne, the handcuffs were much tighter than necessary and caused visible injury to the plaintiff. The Court then explained that the handcuffs used on Day were not any tighter than would typically have been used to restrain an arrestee under similar circumstances. The Court also noted that coroner found no signs of physical trauma on Day’s body and the autopsy report did not indicate lacerations on Day’s wrists. For these reasons, the Court found that the rule established in Payne, did not apply to Officer Denny and Sergeant Wooten’s conduct.

The Court then distinguished the case of Tibbs v. City of Chicago, 469 F. 3d 661 (7th Cir. 2006) and Rooni v. Biser, 742 F.3d 737 (7th Cir. 2014). The Court first noted that, “Tibbs, establishes that, absent any indication an officer is aware the handcuff tightness or positioning is causing unnecessary pain or injury, the officer acts reasonably in not modifying the handcuffs.” Turning to Rooni, the Court noted that “Rooni establishes the right of a person ‘to be free from an officer’s knowing use of handcuffs in a way that would inflict unnecessary pain or injury, if that person presents little or no risk of flight or threat of injury.’”

The Court noted that both Tibbs and Rooni focused on the key fact that the police officer must know that the handcuffs will cause unnecessary pain or injury. The Court further explained that Tibbs and Rooni involved multiple specific complaints by the arrestee to the officers about the nature of the arrestee’s injury. In contrast to these cases, Day never complained to the officers that the tightness of his handcuffs was restricting his breathing. Moreover, the Court noted that there was no indication that Day’s handcuffs were the cause of his breathing problems until Day’s autopsy was released. In light of this reasoning, the Court concluded that “Day’s right to be free from an officer’s knowing use of handcuffs in a way that would inflict unnecessary pain or injury was not violated.”

The Court next considered Day’s closely related right to have the arresting officers consider his injuries or condition while handcuffing him. The Court again looked to its prior case of Stainback v. Dixon, 569 F. 3d 767 (7th Cir. 2009). The Court then explained that “Stainback only clearly establishes the right to have a known injury or condition considered, together with other circumstances, by officers when handcuffing.” The Court explained that Day only complained that he was having trouble breathing and did not complain that this was being caused by his handcuffs as opposed to exertion from the chase. Moreover, the Court also noted that the officers were unaware of Day’s underlying heart condition which also contributed to Day’s lack of oxygen. Lastly, the Court explained that it was not obvious from the facts of this case that Day’s breathing problems were being caused by the handcuff positioning. Therefore, the Court held that the right which was set forth in Stainback was not triggered by the facts of Day’s case against the officers.

For these reasons, the Court concluded that the police officers did not violate Day’s clearly established rights.

Notes: 

  • The Court did not determine if the handcuffing of a subject who was complaining of breathing issues was constitutional, but instead dismissed the case because the law was not clearly established thereby notifying officers that such action could be unconstitutional.
  • Importantly, the officers took a number of actions in this case that were consistent with good practice:
    • Re-Positioning to facilitate breathing
    • Monitoring the Subject
    • Calling EMS to check on the subject when he complained of breathing issues

[i] Day v. Wooten, 947 F.3d 453 (7th Cir. 2020)

 

By |2020-04-28T12:58:24+00:00April 20th, 2020|Legal updates|

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