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Case remanded: Handcuff injury ruled excessive force?

Will the alleged handcuff injury be ruled excessive force? The court of appeals remanded the case to the trial court to find out

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HUGHEY V. EASLICK, 2021 WL 2641884 (6th Cir. 2021)

Dawn Hughey was speeding because she was late for work, when she sped past an officer who turned on his emergency lights and dashcam and stopped her. Hughey’s car was uninsured and unregistered, and there was an outstanding failure-to-appear arrest warrant for Hughey. The officer gave Hughey the option of paying the $400 cash bail on her warrant or being taken to the courthouse.

Hughey didn’t have the cash; the officer arrested her. He handcuffed Hughey’s hands behind her back and placed her in his car. When Hughey started to talk about suicide, the officer took her to a hospital. Hughey claimed the officer twisted her arm behind her back as he handcuffed her. She also alleged that he did not check the fitment on the handcuffs and that her shoulder hurt, which she claims she told the officer several times during the ride. The officer didn’t recall at which point Hughey complained, but he did note that he “double-checked the tension of the handcuffs.” The handcuffing was out of the range of the dashcam. Hughey also claimed a nurse at the hospital commented on the red marks around her wrists.

Hughey sued the officer, alleging excessive force and deliberate indifference to her claimed injuries. The district court applied qualified immunity and granted summary judgment for the officer. The 6th Circuit reversed. The appellate court had previously held that “allegations of bruising and wrist marks [from handcuffs] create a genuine issue of material fact” that bar the granting of qualified immunity (McGrew v. Duncan, 937 F.3d 664 (6th Cir. 2019)).

The court of appeals, in this case, held that Hughey created a genuine dispute of material fact about whether the officer violated her clearly established constitutional right to be free from excessive force. “Because lingering ring marks are of the same ilk as bruising, swelling, and numbness – each indicative of an overly tight cuff that grates on one’s skin and causes pain – Hughey’s allegations that the handcuffs caused her pain and marked her wrists get her over the genuine-dispute-of-material-fact line.”

The appellate court remanded the case back to the trial court. The threshold for alleging excessive force based on tight handcuffs is very low. When applying handcuffs, follow a consistent routine of double-locking, checking fitment using the index finger/thumb pinch test, and document both steps – every time. When a handcuffed suspect complains, check the handcuffs again, and document it again. That may make the difference in prevailing against a claim of handcuff injury.

NEXT: How to master the art of speedy handcuff application and removal

A police officer and former prosecutor, Ken Wallentine is Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. Traffic detentions and passenger issues are discussed in his new book, Street Legal: A Guide to Pre-trial Criminal Procedure for Police, Prosecutors, and Defenders, published by the American Bar Association Press.