Reversal: Indianapolis police immune in teen’s death linked to handcuffing

Despite multiple 7th Circuit decisions finding police at fault for injuring individuals by excessive handcuffing, a panel from the Chicago court has granted qualified immunity to two Indianapolis police officers in the death of a teenager because none of the previous cases specifically give arrestees the right to not be handcuffed after complaining about difficulty breathing.

Terrell Day, 18, was arrested in September 2015 after he allegedly shoplifted a watch from Burlington Coat Factory at Washington Square Mall. Confronted by security, Day returned the watch but then fled across the parking lot, eventually collapsing on a grassy slope near a gas station.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Randall Denny arrived and placed Day, who weighed 312 pounds, in a single set of handcuffs. Day told officers he was having trouble breathing and Denny responded Day had exerted himself by running then instructed him to take slow deep breaths. Day was not remaining in an upright seated position and at one point soiled himself.

Day also complained to Indianapolis Metro Police Sgt. Franklin Wooten that he could not breathe, but the officer was skeptical because the teenager was also claiming he had done nothing wrong and was asking to be released. An ambulance was called, paramedics examined Day, concluded he was breathing normally and did not need to go to the hospital. Wooten signed the “Treatment/Transport Refusal” form.

Denny then requested the “jail wagon” to transport Day to detention. Prior to the arrival of the vehicle, a second pair of handcuffs was added to Day’s wrists. However, when the jail transport arrived, the driver found Day unresponsive and lying on his back on the asphalt. A second ambulance was called and paramedics performed CPR for 30 minutes but were unable to revive Day.

The autopsy report listed the cause of death as “Sudden Cardiac Death due to Acute Ischemic Change.” Listed as a contributing cause was sustained respiratory compromise due to hands cuffed behind the back, obesity, underlying cardiomyopathy.

Day’s mother and father sued in September 2017 and the defendants moved for summary judgment. Denny and Wooten asserted qualified immunity but the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. The court concluded, in part, “reasonable officers would know they were violating an established right by leaving Day’s hands cuffed behind his back after he complained of difficulty breathing.”

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded in Shanika Day, et al. v. Franklin Wooten, et al., 19-1930.

“Day never complained that the tightness of the handcuff was restricting his breathing,” Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the appellate panel, which included Judges Frank Easterbrook and Amy Coney Barrett. “The record contains no evidence that there was any indication the handcuffs were the cause of Day’s breathing difficulty until the autopsy report was released. Thus, Day’s right ‘to be free from an officer’s knowing use of handcuffs in a way that would not inflict unnecessary pain or injury’ was not violated.”

The 7th Circuit ruled the cases cited by the plaintiffs did not apply to circumstances surrounding Day. In particular, the panel found Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767 (7th Cir. 2003), involved circumstances and conduct “drastically different” than Day because the officers did not yank Day’s arms and did not make the handcuffs tighter than was required. Also, the court ruled Tibbs v. City of Chicago, 469 F.3d 661 (7th Cir. 2006) and Rooni v. Biser, 742 F.3d 737 (7th Cir. 2014) were not on point because those cases established that the officer must know the handcuffs are causing injury.

Moreover, the appellate panel was dismissive of the district court’s reliance on the 2016 ruling Salyers v. Alexandria Police Dep’t, 1:15-cv-00265. “We have conclusively stated that district court opinions cannot clearly establish a constitutional right because they are not binding precedential authority,” Manion wrote.

However, Salyers relied on and the plaintiffs pointed to Stainback v. Dixon, 569 F.3d 767 (7th Cir. 2009), which involved an arrestee whose pre-existing arm-and-shoulder injuries were exacerbated by officers handcuffing him behind his back. The panel determined Stainback only established the right to have a known injury or condition considered, which did not help Day because while he complained of difficult breathing, he did not say the handcuffs were the problem.

“Given the facts as assumed by the district court and the information known to the officers at the time of the arrest, the only right plaintiffs can assert would be the right of an out-of-breath arrestee to not have his hands cuffed behind his back after he complains of difficulty breathing,” Manion wrote. “We find no Seventh Circuit precedent clearly establishing such a right. The cases relied upon by the district court and the plaintiffs present circumstances far different, and therefore cannot clearly establish that the officers’ conduct violated Day’s rights.”

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