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Eleventh Circuit rules that police officer’s qualified immunity did not bar civil rights lawsuit involving plaintiff forcibly arrested for traffic infraction and handcuffed for over five hours

On March 14, 2019, in Sebastian v. Ortiz, No. 17-14751, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s denial of a defendant police officer’s motion to dismiss in a Fourth Amendment excessive force case.  The case involved a routine speeding violation, but the situation escalated after the plaintiff, a security guard employed by Miami-Dade County, refused to allow the officer to search the interior of his vehicle.  According to the plaintiff’s complaint, after the plaintiff denied the officer permission to enter his vehicle, the officer arrested him and detained him in excessively tightened handcuffs that cut off the circulation in his hands and cut into the skin on his wrists.  When the plaintiff complained, the officer responded that “he knew of a way to make them tighter.”  When the plaintiff was then placed in the police vehicle for transport to the police station, the metal cuffs were replaced by plastic cuffs that the plaintiff alleged were also intentionally tightened to cause injury.  The plaintiff remained handcuffed behind his back at the police station for an additional five hours. The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that that he consequently suffered nerve damage to his wrists. Although the plaintiff had committed only a noncriminal speeding violation, he was also terminated from his security guard job for Miami-Dade County.  

The defendant police officer alleged that the plaintiff’s civil rights complaint should be dismissed due to the officer’s qualified immunity.  Whether the use of force in making an arrest is excessive turns on multiple factors including the severity of the crime and whether the suspect posed a threat, was resisting, or fleeing. Applying this standard, the district court held that the severe injuries the plaintiff suffered from handcuffing provided a sufficient basis to deny qualified immunity and permit the claim to move forward to discovery.  The Eleventh Circuit agreed.  Quoting in part from its previous decision in Priester v. City of Riviera Beach, 208 F.3d 919, 926 (11th Cir. 2000), the Eleventh Circuit concluded that “[t]he peculiar facts of this case, not least the reapplication of excessively tightened cuffs after Sebastian first complained and the five-hour period Sebastian spent restrained in the cuffs at the station after his arrest, cross over ‘the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force’ such that any reasonable officer would know he had violated the Constitution.”

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