Excessive Force, De Minimus Injuries, and Tight Handcuffs

Recently defendants in excessive force claimed have offered this defense: "Even if I pushed the guy on the ground, his injuries weren't bad.  Thus, the excessive force claim should be dismissed."  Shouldn't the degree of plaintiff's injuries go to damages rather than liability?  Amazingly, some courts are receptive to de minimus injury argument.

Imagine if, in a criminal assault case, a defendant said, "Sure, I pushed him up against the wall. It's not like I hurt him that badly."  Arguments that would earn a criminal defendant a tongue lashing become persuasive when made by a police officer who has been sued for excessive force.

Today, in Morrison v. Board of Trustees of Green Township, No. 08-3051 (6th Cir. Oct. 8, 2009) (here), a unanimous three-judge panel rejected "a blanket de minimis injury requirement for excessive force claims." Slip op. at *16.  In Morrison, the police officer allegedly pushed a handcuffed woman on the ground.  The Sixth Circuit held that a police officer who wantonly inflicts punishment cannot defend himself by claiming, "I only hurt the plaintiff a little."  Wrote the court:

"Gratuitous violence" inflicted upon an incapacitated detainee constitutes an excessive use of force, even when the injuries suffered are not substantial. See, e.g., Pigram ex rel. Pigram v. Chaudoin, 199 F. App’x 509, 513 (6th Cir. 2006). In Pigram, it was alleged that the defendant police officer slapped the handcuffed plaintiff in the face because the latter was being unruly and had a “smart-ass mouth.” Id. at 513. Finding the defendant’s conduct to be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the purposes of summary judgment, Pigram emphasized that a “slap to the face of a handcuffed suspect – even a verbally unruly suspect – is not a reasonable means of achieving anything more than perhaps further antagonizing or humiliating the suspect.” Id. The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the relatively minimal use of force applied and the absence of any resulting injury. See id. (stating “under specific circumstances, a slap may constitute a sufficiently obvious constitutional violation” even if “involv[ing] less physical force than a ‘tackle’”).
Id. at *17.

The officer also allegedly tightened the handcuffs, cutting off the circulation of the plaintiff's wrists.  In denying qualified immunity in an excessive force claim, gave us a helpful summary of the law of tight handcuffs:
In order for a handcuffing claim to survive summary judgment, a plaintiff must offer sufficient evidence to create a genuine issueof material fact that: (1) he or she complained the handcuffs were too tight; (2) the officer ignored those complaints; and (3) the plaintiff experienced "some physical injury" resulting from the handcuffing. See Lyons v. City of Xenia, 417 F.3d 565, 575-76 (6th Cir. 2005).
Slip op. at *8.  How much of an injury is required in order to state a claim for excessive force based on tight handcuffs?
The remaining, and most contentious, issue on appeal with respect to the handcuffing claim is whether Amanda alleged an adequate physical injury to preclude summary judgment. In finding Amanda met this requirement, the district court relied on Cynthia’s testimony that the handcuffs were so tight that "[Amanda's] skin was all pinched over and it was turning black and blue." Although not specifically mentioned by the district court, there was also evidence that there were "marks" on Amanda’s wrists as a result of the handcuffing. Specifically, Amanda explained to an inquiring paramedic that the marks on her wrists were from the handcuffs. Officer Celender argues that allegations of bruising and wrist marks alone are, as a matter of law, insufficient to establish a "physical injury." We disagree.
Slip op. at *9 (citations omitted).  Bottom line?  "[B]ruising, skin marks, and attendant pain allegedly suffered by Amanda during the forty to fifty minutes she was handcuffed creates a genuine issue of material fact regarding the existence of an injury."  Id. at *10.



10:10 AM

Well, objectively speaking if you're up for a charge of using excessive force this naturally suggests that there is some level of force that would be reasonable. If you can prove your use of force is reasonable you lack the physical element of using excessive force. On the law it seems like a sensible line to go on.

On the other hand: does a jury want to hear this argued by a police officer? No it does not.


11:28 AM

I didn't make this clear in my post, though I should have.

The issue comes up most often in post-custody excessive force cases. Once a person is in custody, is it reasonable (which the Fourth Amendment requires) for a police office to smack someone in the face; thrown them on the ground; or take a kick "just for kicks"?

After a suspect is in custody, police are gratuitously violent. Should they be able to defend their gratuitous violences by saying, "Hey, I wasn't *that* violent?"

Can we say any use of force against someone who is in custody and not resisting arrest is reasonable? If so, where does not get that definition of "reasonable" from?

In other contexts - e.g., criminal assault cases - it's often that "extra kick" that determines whether someone will face charges. Kicking a guy when he's down - even if it doesn't cause serious injuries - weighs heavily on a decision to arrest and prosecute.

Most of us recognize that kicking someone - or being gratuitously violent - is unreasonable. Even if a person isn't injured, the extra kick is unreasonable.


12:02 PM

Yeah, exactly. Partly it's a result of the word excessive at all - if you go out to beat up a citizen that should be assault like everyone else whether or not you've got a badge. If you're on riot control and club someone unconscious at a protest that's (potentially) excessive force because some force would be justifiable and you need to work out the reasonable level. Unresisting, bound (?) prisoners don't need hitting in the first place so it's less excessive use of force and more wrongful use of force.

I've seen "I didn't do much damage" arguments over here in Scotland too and I've always thought "well, that's because of what you hit, isn't it?" The reason that Lex Luthor never hurts Superman isn't because of Lex Luthor.