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Excessive force claim upheld for injuries sustained from handcuffs

In an important decision the Eleventh Circuit held in Sebastian v. Ortiz that an arrested person can proceed with a civil rights excessive force claim for substantial injuries arising from a handcuffing following a valid arrest. This is an appeal by Javier Ortiz of the Miami Police Department from the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss the civil rights excessive force case against the officer by Ruben Sebastian. While driving in the City of Miami Sebastian was pulled over for a speeding traffic violation. When the officer who stopped Sebastian asked for permission to search the interior of the car, Sebastian refused to give consent. Officer Ortiz was summoned and his request to search was also denied. Ortiz then became enraged and removed Sebastian from the car and with the aid of other officers restrained Sebastian and placed him in metal handcuffs which he claims were put on in a manner to purposely cause pain and injury cutting off the circulation in his hands and cutting into the skin of his wrists. When Sebastian was placed in a vehicle for transportation to the police station, Ortiz replaced the metal handcuffs with plastic flex cuffs that were allegedly tight and were intended to cause pain and further injury. Sebastian was taken to the station and detained for more than five house still handcuffed behind his back. The charges against him of resisting an officer without violence were later dropped by the State Attorney.

Sebastian alleged that he suffered nerve damage to his hand and wrists along with emotional pain and suffering, loss of employment and reputational damage as a result of the handcuffing and arrest. His false arrest claim was rejected by the district court. As to his excessive force claim, the officer moved to dismiss based on the defense of qualified immunity. The district court rejected this defense because the severe injuries from handcuffing provided a sufficient basis to deny qualified immunity, permitting the case to proceed. From that decision officer Ortiz took this appeal.

The court of appeals found this case presented a question of serious and substantial injury intentionally and gratuitously inflicted on an individual of ordinary vulnerability. Though de minis injuries are not actionable as excessive force in connection with a lawful arrest, the court found the seriousness and permanence of Sebastian’s injury takes his claim out of the de minimis category. The court rejected Ortiz’s argument that handcuffing alone can never constitute excessive force regardless of the need for the use of force under the circumstances or the extent of the injuries inflicted. The court found that there was no indication that Sabastian posed a threat to officer safety or to anyone else or that he was a flight risk at any time during the interaction, thus his Fourth Amendment right to be free from the excessive use of force was violated under the exceptional circumstances of this case.

As for whether this Fourth Amendment right was clearly established, though the court had never addressed a claim factually identical to Sabastian’s, the prior case of Smith v Mattox established that if an arrestee demonstrates compliance, but the officer nonetheless less inflicts gratuitous and substantial injury using ordinary arrest tactics, then the officer used excessive force and the civil rights claim can proceed. Therefor the prior case law bars Ortiz’s actions with enough clarity to put any reasonable officer on notice that this conduct constitutes excessive force. Calling these facts “unusual”, the court had no doubt that the force was objectively disproportionate and altogether gratuitous.