Officers Not Liable in Shoplifter’s Death

Day v. Wooten, 2020 (7th Cir. 2020)

Terrell Day stole a watch from a retail store. Day was known to the store’s loss prevention officer as a frequent shoplifter. When the loss prevention officer confronted Day outside the store, Day returned the watch, but refused to return to the store. A mall security officer noticed Day had a gun tucked into his waistband and approached him and the loss prevention officer. Day ran from the two private security officers, running through the mall and across the parking lot and crossing a street to a gas station. Exhausted from the short run, Day collapsed on a grassy hill – his gun lay a few feet from him on the grass.

Police arrived and handcuffed Day with a single pair of handcuffs. The officer noted Day was overweight, sweating and breathing heavily. Nonetheless, he was able to easily bring Day’s hands behind his back. Day complained of breathing difficulty. The officer told Day to take deep breaths in and out to slow his heart rate. The officer told Day to remain in a seated position, both for officer safety reasons and to facilitate Day’s breathing. Day did not remain seated; he laid down on his stomach and rolled down the hill. Officers repositioned Day into a seated position several times. An officer added a second pair of handcuffs to allow more comfort for Day.

When Day complained again about breathing difficulty, a sergeant watching him doubted Day’s claim. Day was asking to be let go and was speaking normally in clear, complete sentences. Nonetheless, the sergeant called for paramedics to examine Day. Day told the paramedics he had no preexisting medical conditions. Paramedics listened to Day’s breathing and checked his heart rate, respiratory rate and blood oxygen saturation. The paramedics concluded Day was breathing regularly and normally and did not need to be taken to the hospital. The paramedics left.

Officers called for a jail wagon to transport Day. When the transport van arrived, Day was lying on his back and was unresponsive. A second ambulance was called. The second set of paramedics found Day’s pulse to be weak. They loaded him into the ambulance and began CPR, but Day died.

The court also cited several actions taken by the officers that were either beneficial or showed the officers conceivably were trying to mitigate Day’s discomfort and breathing difficulty.

Though one of the officers provided a second set of handcuffs to allow greater movement and comfort for Day, Day had never complained about the tightness of the handcuffs or complained they restricted his breathing. The paramedics who first examined Day never asked to have the handcuffs removed or moved to the front to facilitate the paramedics’ assessment and treatment. The autopsy showed no bruises or contusions caused by handcuffs. A coroner listed the cause of death as “Sudden Cardiac Death due to Acute Ischemic Change” and listed contributory causes as “Sustained respiratory compromise due to hands cuffed behind the back, obesity, underlying cardiomyopathy.”

Day’s mother sued. The trial court refused to grant qualified immunity to the officers, stating, “reasonable officers would know they were violating an established right by leaving Day’s hands cuffed behind his back after he complained of difficulty breathing.” The trial court cited a number of cases where courts have articulated a clearly established rule that it is unreasonable to apply handcuffs excessively tightly on a non-resisting, non-violent misdemeanor suspect. Again, there was no evidence in the record that the handcuffs were tight or caused any injury. In fact, the evidence strongly suggested the handcuffs were not unreasonably tight.

The court of appeals reversed the trial court and ordered the officers be granted qualified immunity from suit. The court stated: “The record contains no evidence that there was any indication the handcuffs were the cause of Day’s breathing difficulty until the autopsy report was released. Thus, 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 also cited several actions taken by the officers that were either beneficial or showed the officers conceivably were trying to mitigate Day’s discomfort and breathing difficulty. The officers tried to maintain Day in a seated position, they added the second set of handcuffs and called for paramedics even though the sergeant believed Day was not in any medical distress. The court also observed, “the first paramedic team found Day’s breathing and oxygen levels to be good, never requested or attempted to modify Day’s handcuffs, and concluded he did not need to be hospitalized for further medical treatment.”

Several best practice factors stand out in this opinion. First, the initial officer instructed Day on slowing his heart rate through controlled breathing and he placed Day into a seated position. Second, even though the sergeant believed Day was falsely claiming to have breathing problems, the sergeant promptly called for paramedics. Third, an officer applied a second set of handcuffs out of an abundance of caution and an effort to ease discomfort. Following these best practices helped the court reach the conclusion the officers had not violated Day’s constitutional rights.

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 four 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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