Officers working the street may have heard these words uttered from time to time: My wrists hurt. Can you loosen up the handcuffs? I can't feel my fingers because the cuffs are too tight.
No doubt, wearing handcuffs can be an unpleasant experience; wearing them behind your back and getting squeezed into the back of a squad car can be downright uncomfortable. And in such circumstances, it's unsurprising when once the handcuffs are removed, red marks, abrasions, bruising, numbness and other similar injuries remain. In some cases, individuals may suffer more severe injuries.
Generally, police officers are trained that the best way to transport an individual under arrest or otherwise in custody is to place handcuffs on the individual's wrists with their hands placed behind their backs. Certainly, officers may encounter circumstances that dictate exceptions to the general rule, and it depends on the police agency's policy and/or the officer's discretion when the officer can or should deviate from the best practice.
But, under normal circumstances, what's the street officer's option when a handcuffed person complains that the cuffs are too tight despite precautions taken to ensure the handcuffs weren't tight? Worse, can you be held liable under those circumstances if the arrestee files a civil-rights lawsuit alleging they were injured as a result of being subjected to tight handcuffs?
It all depends on the individual facts of the case.
Cuffs & the Courts
Several courts have addressed the issue of whether tight handcuffs can constitute excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, but no general rule says handcuffs must be loose or at what level the handcuffs become too tight. One might even argue that the current case law seems inconsistent when it comes to handcuff cases.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing because as police officers, we want the courts to look at each case under its own facts and circumstances. After all, officers deal with human behavior, which is often unpredictable. As such, it's impossible to impose rules and/or policies that take into account every possible issue that can arise during the application of handcuffs.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes this. In determining whether the force used is unreasonable, the Court stated in Graham v. Connor1 the reasonableness of a particular use of force (e.g., the application of handcuffs) depends on 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 he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Officers must understand that not every case of tight handcuffing violates the Fourth Amendment s right to be free from the use of excessive force during an arrest. In fact, several courts have stated as much. For example, in Braun v. Baldwin,2 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant police officers on a claim of excessive use of force based on tight handcuffing because there was no indication that the arrest was effected in an unusual or improper manner. In Burchett v. Kiefer,3 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a grant of summary judgment for police officers on a claim of excessive force because the officers removed the handcuffs once the plaintiff complained they were too tight. Many federal appellate courts seem to agree that a claim of tight handcuffs by itself is insufficient to rise to the level of unreasonable force.4
However, some cases have found that tight handcuffing can constitute a Fourth Amendment violation. These cases require that the officer had either constructive or actual notice that the force applied by the handcuffs was excessive under the circumstances, and the officer failed to respond to such notice in a reasonable manner. For example, in Sleeman v. Oakland County,5 the plaintiff was arrested after police officers responded to a call from a bar owner resulting from the plaintiff s assault of a female patron. The plaintiff was handcuffed and transported to the police station. The plaintiff asserted that the officers used excessive force by not locking the handcuffs, which allowed them to continually tighten. The plaintiff testified that he asked officers four times to loosen or remove the handcuffs because they were too tight and claimed that the officers refused to do so, stating, "You get them off when you get to jail."6 The plaintiff claimed that the tightness of the handcuffs resulted in tingling in his hands, red scars across his wrists and numbness in his forearms and hands. One of the officers testified that he checked the plaintiff's handcuffs for tightness and double-locked them. He also stated that the plaintiff asked to have the handcuffs removed but didn't say they were too tight.
The court found in order to reach a jury on this claim, the plaintiff must allege some physical injury from the handcuffing, and must show that officers ignored plaintiff s complaints that the handcuffs were too tight.7 The court also found that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to establish a claim of excessive force based on overly tight handcuffing. The court noted that the plaintiff testified that he asked the officers if they could get the handcuffs off me or make them looser at least four times.8 He also stated that the officers didn't secure the handcuffs so they continually tightened; he asked the officers to loosen or remove the handcuffs because they were too tight; the officers refused his request; and that the handcuffs resulted in physical injury.
Moreover, one of the officers testified that he heard the plaintiff complain the handcuffs were too tight but didn't do anything because he thought one of the other officers had checked them for tightness. A second officer testified that the plaintiff asked him to remove the handcuffs, but didn't tell him they were too tight. Therefore, based on the evidence presented, the court denied the officers motion for summary judgment and continued the matter for trial, where a jury would determine the credibility of the parties testimony.
Several other courts have ruled against police officers where evidence existed that they had notice of the tightness of handcuffs but chose not to respond to the plaintiff's pleas. In Bastien v. Goddard,9 the appellate court reversed judgment for the police officer in favor of the plaintiff where the plaintiff alleged tight handcuffing for more than four hours despite repeated complaints. In Kostrzewa v. City of Troy10 there was documentation in police reports that the officer had been able to tighten the cuffs to only the first tooth because the plaintiff had large wrists, yet he ignored plaintiff's persistent complaints that the cuffs were too small and tight until after the plaintiff was booked.
No doubt, it's well established that the right to make an arrest accompanies with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion.11 Frequently, an arrest requires that police officers handcuff the suspect, and to be effective, the handcuffs must be tight enough to prevent the arrestee's hands from slipping out.12 But, when an arrestee complains that the handcuffs are too tight, giving the officers notice of a potential injury, there may be liability.
The issue of notice brought by a plaintiff's complaint that the handcuffs were too tight and caused pain is highlighted in the Burchett13 case. In Burchett, the plaintiff was arrested, handcuffed and placed in a squad car for three hours during the search of a residence. While he was in the squad car, he was able to converse with members of his family and showed them his swollen and blue hands. The family, in turn, brought this to the attention of the officers, who agreed to release the plaintiff if he promised to behave. The plaintiff agreed, he was taken out of the squad car and the handcuffs were removed. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a civil rights claim alleging that the officers used excessive force against him in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Sixth Circuit disagreed.
The appellate court in Burchett recognized that applying handcuffs so tightly that the detainee's hands become numb and turn blue certainly raises concerns of excessive force.14 Moreover, the court acknowledged that the plaintiff can get his case before a jury by showing that officers handcuffed the plaintiff excessively and unnecessarily tightly and ignored the plaintiff s pleas that the handcuffs were too tight.15
However, unlike the other cases, where the courts found that the defendant officers may have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Burchett court stated that the evidence presented gave no indication that [the plaintiff] had previously complained or advised the officers that the handcuffs were too tight…. Until [the officers] had notice that the handcuffs were too tight, the officers were unaware of the problem.16 In other words, because the officers had responded to the plaintiff s one complaint by removing the cuffs, the court found that there was no violation of the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment right.
The Bottom Line
So, what's an officer to do when an arrestee complains that the handcuffs were too tight at the time of the arrest? Of course, it depends on the circumstances. If the scene of the arrest is not secure, or the safety of others, including officers, is at risk, nothing can be done until those issues are resolved.
Example: You may have been one of several officers who responded to a complaint of a party getting out of hand, and officers were confronted with an angry mob of 200 people. While attempting to disperse the crowd, several arrests were made for assault to police officers and mob action as a result of beer bottles and other items being thrown in the officers direction. Those who were arrested were placed in the back of a paddy wagon for 45 minutes until the crowd dissipated and the scene was otherwise secure. During that time, one of the arrestees shouted that their handcuffs were too tight. Because of the necessity to respond to the immediate concern of dispersing an angry crowd, the calls for assistance went unanswered. Your delay in responding to the complaint in such circumstances may be more reasonable than not.
However, once the scene is secure, officers should check the tightness of the handcuffs. If you determine the cuffs are too tight, loosen them while still ensuring that the arrestee can't successfully manipulate the cuffs off of their wrist(s). Secure the handcuffs by ensuring they are double-locked or otherwise secure. If the arrestee requests medical attention, or you determine from your own observation that they require medical attention, call for the paramedics to respond and treat the arrestee. Then, document the complaint and your response to it in your police report. If there was a delay in checking the tightness of the handcuffs, document the reasons why.
Don't construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.
1. 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989).
2. 346 F.3d 761, 763 (7th Cir. 2003).
3. 310 F.3d 937, 944-45 (6th Cir. 2002).
4. Rodriguez v. Farrell, 280 F.3d 1341, 1351 (11th Cir. 2002) ( painful handcuffing, without more, does not violate the Fourth Amendment); Glenn v. City of Tyler, 242 F.3d 307, 314 (5th Cir. 2001) (stating that handcuffing too tightly, without more, does not amount to excessive force ); Carter v. Morris, 164 F.3d 215, 219 n.3 (4th Cir. 1999) (claim of tight handcuffs was so insubstantial that it cannot as a matter of law support her claim of excessive force); Foster v. Metropolitan Airports Comm n, 914 F.2d 1076, 1082 (8th Cir. 1990) (affirming grant of summary judgment for police officers based on tight handcuffing because allegations of pain alone were insufficient to support a claim of excessive force).
5. 2007 WL 134403 (E.D.Mich, May 7, 2007).
6. Id. at *4.
7. Id. at *5 (citations omitted).
9. 279 F.3d 10, 12-13 (1st Cir. 2002).
10. 247 F.3d 633, 639-40 (6th Cir. 2001).
11. Graham, 490 U.S. at 396.
12. Estmont v. City of New York, 371 F.Supp.2d 202, 214 (E.D.N.Y., 2005).
13. 310 F.3d at 937.
14. Id. at 944.
15. Id. at 944-45.
16. Id. at 945 (emphasis added).