Hey, Officer, I was Breaking the Law Because I Have To…

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Antonellis v. California, 728 Fed. Appx. 739 (9th Cir. 2018)

Any cop working traffic has heard a version of this story; I have, many times. I recently found myself at the telling-and-begging end of the story, not the listening end. While riding my Harley a bit over the posted speed limit, I was stopped by a highway patrol trooper. I asked (okay, I pleaded) to meet the trooper at the gas station five miles ahead where I would graciously accept a speeding citation—after I had a chance to use the facilities. Let’s just say that it all worked out in the end and leave it at that. I owe that trooper one.

But if he had held me on the side of the long stretch of straight, flat freeway, with nary a sagebrush shrub in sight, long enough to write a speeding ticket and check for warrants and driver license validity—and the inevitable had happened—could I have sued him? I wouldn’t, but could I? Not according to a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

While driving on the I-5 freeway in busy southern California traffic, Toni Antonellis felt a bout of severe gastric distress developing. Hoping to reach a restroom at the next exit in time, Antonellis unlawfully moved across a double yellow line into the restricted HOV lane. An officer saw her and stopped her for the illegal lane change and the solo driving in the HOV lane. Antonellis told the officer that she was speeding toward a toilet. The officer asked for Antonellis’s license and vehicle registration, but not until the fourth request did Antonellis comply.

The officer walked back to his car to write a citation, but as he walked to his patrol car, Antonellis sped away. The officer pursued with lights and siren activated. Antonellis stopped again, now on the exit ramp (in for a penny, in for a pound—why not just pull into the gas station and run to the restroom?).

The officer told Antonellis to get out of the car. As he was handcuffing Antonellis, the urgent gastric distress suddenly passed, first to relief, then to embarrassment. Antonellis complained that the handcuffs hurt. After consulting with his supervisor, the officer decided to release Antonellis and not transport her.

Antonellis sued, alleging excessive force, among other claims. The trial court granted summary judgment to the officer, applying qualified immunity to the handcuffing claim. Though recognizing tight handcuff application can constitute unlawful excessive force, the court ruled that a jury could not find the officer’s actions, viewed in the light most favorable to Antonellis, were objectively unreasonable. Antonellis admitted the officer was not “physically rough” with her as he applied the handcuffs. He also did not raise his voice (remember: talk nice, think mean) or strike her in any manner. And she acknowledged that he placed her in the patrol car “in a reasonable manner.”

Antonellis also claimed the officer unconstitutionally violated her “body integrity,” blaming him for her loss of bowel control and soiling herself while being handcuffed. The court made quick work of this claim. Other than arresting and handcuffing her, which Antonellis conceded was proper, the officer did not interfere with her body integrity in any way. Thus, the officer was entitled to dismissal of that claim.

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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