A Redmond, Wash., police officer places handcuffs on a suspect. Remember the basics: Cuff in back with keyholes facing up, and double-lock the cuffs to prevent further tightening. Tell the prisoner not to lean back against them in the seat, and check the cuffs occasionally, especially if you receive a prisoner from someone else. If you need to adjust them, use care and try to do it when another officer is present to lessen the chance for problems.Photo Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN TRAINING
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.