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U.S. Supreme Court declines Michigan deputies’ appeal in excessive force case

Posted on Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The United States Supreme Court has denied an appeal in the case of two Macomb County deputies who were sued for civil rights violations when making an arrest.

   The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Baynes v Cleland (Docket No. 14-2235), ruled the defendant police officers could be held liable for handcuffing the plaintiff, Alan Baynes, too tightly during his domestic violence arrest. In so finding, the 6th Circuit reversed the Eastern District of Michigan, which had granted summary judgment for the defendants based on qualified immunity.

   During his arrest, the plaintiff claimed that he told the defendants that his handcuffs were too tight. After he was released from jail, the plaintiff was treated for injuries to his wrists and was diagnosed with “bilateral radial sensory neuropathy from handcuffs.” He was prescribed wrist guards to wear.

   The plaintiff sued the defendants under 42 USC § 1983, asserting they violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by using excessive force that caused him severe and permanent injuries. After the Eastern District granted summary judgment for the defendants, the plaintiff appealed.

   The 6th Circuit reversed the Eastern District. In so doing, the court emphasized there is plenty of case law holding that excessively tight handcuffing is a constitutional violation. In particular, the 6th Circuit cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hope v Pelzer, 536 US 730 (2002), for the proposition that officials must be on notice that their alleged conduct was unconstitutional.

   “In Hope, the Supreme Court established that, for purposes of qualified immunity, the precise factual scenario need not have been found unconstitutional for it to be sufficiently clear to a reasonable official that his actions violate a constitutional right — that is, for the right to be ‘clearly established,’” the 6th Circuit said. “In fact, the Supreme Court determined that government officials can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances.”

   The 6th Circuit further noted the court has consistently held that excessively forceful handcuffing violates the Fourth Amendment, and that its rulings sufficiently put a reasonable officer on notice that “unduly tight handcuffing” is a constitutional violation. Therefore, “the law is sufficiently clear for the purpose of the clearly established prong of the qualified immunity analysis,” the 6th Circuit said.   

   Applying these principles this case, the 6th Circuit said that, while the Eastern District recognized there is a general right to be free from unduly tight handcuffing, the district court proceeded to mistakenly find that the right was not clearly established in this case because a reasonable officer would not have known that he was violating the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights.

   According to the 6th Circuit, the Eastern District relied too heavily on the unpublished opinion in Fettes v Hendershot, 375 F App’x 528 (6th Cir, 2010). “It was at this point that the district court erred,” the 6th Circuit said. “The factual nuances the district court noted to distinguish [the plaintiff’s] case from this Court’s extensive precedent on unduly tight handcuffing amount to precisely the kind of rigidity the Supreme Court foreclosed in Hope.”

   The defendants thereafter appealed the 6th Circuit's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the petition for writ of certiorari on March 7, 2016 (Docket No. 15-852).

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