Handcuffs Didn’t Fit and Neither Does Qualified Immunity

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Sebastian v. Ortiz, 2019 (11th Cir. 2019)

An officer stopped Ruben Sebastian for speeding. After checking the light transmission on his tinted front windows, the officer asked for consent to search the back of the car where the window tint was darker. Sebastian denied consent, noting the front windows were both down.

A second officer arrived and according to Sebastian, when he denied consent to search by the second officer, the officer “became enraged,” opened the car door, and removed Sebastian from the car. The officer pressed Sebastian’s face onto the hood of the car and tightly applied metal handcuffs.

Another officer arrived to transport Sebastian to the station and switched the metal handcuffs for flex cuffs, also allegedly applied tightly. Sebastian complained of pain and numbness but remained handcuffed for approximately five hours. Eventually, no criminal charges were pursued and Sebastian pleaded guilty to a non-criminal speeding violation.

Sebastian sued, alleging nerve damage and loss of employment opportunities. The officer who initially applied the handcuffs claimed the force of handcuffing was “de minimis.” The court disagreed.

Handcuffing generally constitutes a use of force and the application of the handcuffs must be reasonable.

The singular message from the court’s decision denying qualified immunity is simple: Handcuffing generally constitutes a use of force and the application of the handcuffs must be reasonable. Here are four simple, but critical, reminders:

  1. Check for fit after the cuffs are applied (either by visual inspection, finger or pinch test).
  2. Always double lock the handcuffs.
  3. Respond to any complaint of tight restraints and document your response.
  4. Remove the handcuffs when safe to do so.

In denying qualified immunity for the officer, the court stated, “Sebastian has adequately pleaded a clearly established constitutional violation of his right to be free from excessive force.” Nothing new here, but a good reminder.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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