Suing the Police over Tight Handcuffs

On Friday, the Supreme Court of North Carolina decided a civil case in which an arrestee alleged that he was handcuffed too tightly by the arresting officer. The court allowed the suit to proceed over the officer’s claim of public official immunity. This post provides more detail about that case and about the law of tight handcuffing more broadly.

Last week’s case. The recent case is Bartley v. High Point. It began when a motorist crossed a double yellow line to pass a slow-moving vehicle. An officer saw this traffic violation and activated his lights and siren. The motorist allegedly did not notice the lights and siren, pulled into his own driveway, and got out of his car. The officer, in plain clothes, pulled into the driveway and ordered the motorist to get back in his vehicle. The motorist allegedly did not recognize the officer as such and refused to re-enter his car. The officer then handcuffed the motorist, arrested him for resisting an officer, and cited him for the traffic violation. The charges were eventually dismissed and the motorist filed a civil suit, one aspect of which was his claim that the officer handcuffed him too tightly, leaving red marks and bruises on his wrists, despite the motorist’s request that the handcuffs be loosened.

In an opinion by Justice Earls, the supreme court found that the allegation of tight handcuffing was evidence of excessive force, and therefore of malice, which created a genuine issue of fact regarding the applicability of public official immunity. (Public official immunity protects public employees who perform, or neglect to perform, discretionary acts in the course of their duties, so long as they act without malice.) The high court’s ruling was generally consistent with how the superior court and the court of appeals had viewed the matter, and the case will apparently proceed to trial.

Justice Berger dissented, joined by Justice Barringer and Chief Justice Newby, arguing that the majority was creating liability for “common encounters with recalcitrant members of our society” and “effectively eliminat[ing] public official immunity for law enforcement officers.” The dissent also noted some disagreement in the federal courts regarding claims of tight handcuffing.

Other cases. It is worth looking at some other cases about tight handcuffing for two reasons. First, they illustrate the range of factual situations in which tight handcuffing allegations arise and the types of factors courts consider when evaluating them. Second, the tight handcuffing allegations in Bartley were only one piece of a larger puzzle. Other allegations also played a part in the majority’s decision that there was sufficient evidence of malice to defeat summary judgment, including allegations that the officer “slammed” the motorist into the motorist’s vehicle during the arrest and allegations that the officer made comments suggestive of a retaliatory motive. For that reason, Bartley may not be conclusive with respect to how allegations of tight handcuffing alone would be treated under state tort law.

With that in mind, here are some recent tight handcuffing cases from the federal appellate courts:

  • Hughey v. Easlick, 3 F.4th 283 (6th 2021). In a section 1983 excessive force and deliberate indifference case, the court denied qualified immunity to an officer where an arrestee alleged that the officer applied handcuffs too tightly during a traffic stop, ultimately tearing the arrestee’s rotator cuff. The court stated that to survive summary judgment, a plaintiff must present evidence that they complained about the tightness, were ignored, and that injury resulted. The court indicated that injury may include “ring marks” on the wrist or bruises. It also indicated that the arrestee’s request that the handcuffs be removed “indicates that she was suffering from some degree of pain” and so constituted a complaint about the tightness of the handcuffs.
  • Mglej v. Gardner, 974 F.3d 1151 (10th 2020). In a section 1983 excessive force case, the court denied qualified immunity to an officer who handcuffed an arrestee and initially ignored the arrestee’s complaints that the handcuffs were too tight. The officer later attempted to loosen the handcuffs, but they broke, leading the officer to use tools from his own garage to pry the handcuffs off, causing significant pain and long-term nerve damage. The court noted the minor nature of the suspected crime – a petty larceny – the lack of resistance by the arrestee, and the arrestee’s complaints as well as the protracted process of removing the handcuffs.
  • Templeton v. Jarmillo, 28 F.4th 618 (5th 2022). A section 1983 excessive force claim was dismissed where the plaintiff alleged that during a welfare check – which turned into an involuntary commitment – police handcuffed him tightly enough to cause “extreme pain” such that his legs buckled, his shoulder spasmed, and he asked for the handcuffs to be removed. The reviewing court affirmed, ruling that “[t]ight handcuffing alone, even where a detainee sustains minor injuries, does not present an excessive force claim,” and distinguishing circuit precedent about prolonged handcuffing causing serious and permanent injury.
  • Ketcham v. City of Mount Vernon, 992 F.3d 144 (2d Cir. 2021). In a case involving claims under state law as well as claims of excessive force under section 1983, the court reversed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to officers who took a man into custody, allegedly handcuffed him too tightly, and hit his head on the door frame of the officer’s patrol car. The court stated that the “established law of this Circuit makes clear that the excessive tightening of handcuffs after an explicit verbal complaint of pain is made violates the Fourth Amendment,” and rejected the district court’s reasoning that the plaintiff’s injuries were de minimis because he did not seek medical treatment or prove lasting damage.

There are many, many more cases about tight handcuffing, which readers may find using LEXIS or Westlaw or in treatises like Michael Avery et al., Police Misconduct: Law and Litigation § 2:19 (Nov. 2021 update) (stating that “[m]ost courts have recognized that applying handcuffs too tightly may amount to excessive force,” but noting some disagreement and the lack of a bright-line test for when excessive force is reached). The Fourth Circuit does not appear to have dealt with an allegation of tight handcuffing since Carter v. Morris, 164 F.3d 215 (4th Cir. 1999), where the court stated in a footnote that the “basis for [the plaintiff’s] excessive force claim—that her handcuffs were too tight and that an officer pushed her legs as she got into the police car—is so insubstantial that it cannot as a matter of law support her claim under . . . the Fourth Amendment.” I do not read Carter as completely foreclosing tight handcuffing claims in the Fourth Circuit, as the use of handcuffs was not a major focus of the case and the opinion contains no information about whether the plaintiff complained about the handcuffs or suffered any injuries from their use. The case is also more than twenty years old and the trend in the law is towards greater recognition of tight handcuffing claims.

Summary and comment. The cases discussed above are from different jurisdictions, involve different legal claims, and arise from different facts. So it is not surprising that they do not all take exactly the same view of allegations of tight handcuffing. Still, it seems fairly clear that tight handcuffing may be actionable under at least some circumstances under section 1983 and under state tort law. The strength of any such claim will depend on factors including the initial justification or need for handcuffs; the duration of the handcuffing; whether the person handcuffed complained about the tightness; and the severity of any resulting injury.

I imagine that many arrestees complain that their handcuffs are tight and ask that they be removed, even when properly cuffed. But sifting the legitimate complaints from the malingerers is part of an officer’s job, and the cases discussed above suggest that officers should take complaints seriously, investigate their veracity, and make (and document) adjustments if necessary. Legal liability may await if officers do this part of their work poorly.