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Sebastian v. Ortiz

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

March 14, 2019

RUBEN SEBASTIAN, Plaintiff -Appellee,
JAVIER ORTIZ, Defendant-Appellant, JAY GROSSMAN, DANIEL CROCKER, et al., Defendants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:16-cv-20501-FAM

          Before MARCUS and DUBINA, Circuit Judges, and GOLDBERG, [*] Judge.


         In this interlocutory appeal, Lieutenant Javier Ortiz of the Miami Police Department challenges the district court's denial of his motion to dismiss this civil rights excessive force case arising out of a routine traffic stop. The appellee, Ruben Sebastian, alleges that during the course of the stop and his subsequent arrest, Ortiz restrained him with handcuffs for more than five hours "in a manner purposely intended to cause pain and injury." On account of the officer's misconduct, Sebastian claims to have suffered nerve damage and the permanent loss of sensation in his hands and wrists. This case presents the question whether a police officer is entitled to qualified immunity when he intentionally applies unnecessarily tight handcuffs to an arrestee who is neither resisting arrest nor attempting to flee, thereby causing serious and permanent injuries. After careful review of the entire record, we agree with the district court that the appellant was not entitled to qualified immunity.


         Since we are reviewing the denial of Lieutenant Ortiz's motion to dismiss, we accept the facts in the amended complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. On July 7, 2015, Ruben Sebastian was pulled over for a traffic violation while driving on the Rickenbacker Causeway in the city of Miami. Officer Jay Grossman of the City of Miami Police Department made the stop. Grossman approached Sebastian's window, told him he believed Sebastian had exceeded the speed limit, and requested to check the tint on the front windows of the vehicle to determine compliance with Florida law. Sebastian complied but he refused Officer Grossman permission to search the interior of the vehicle. The officer claimed that the tint on the rear windows prevented him from seeing into the back of the car; Sebastian asserted, however, that the entire interior was readily visible because the front windows of the car were rolled down. After Sebastian denied consent to the search, Officer Grossman summoned Lieutenant Javier Ortiz[1] of the Miami Police Department for backup.

         When Ortiz arrived at the scene, he too asked for permission to search the interior of the vehicle. Sebastian again refused, and Ortiz allegedly "became enraged," opened the car door, and removed Sebastian from the vehicle. First Am. Compl. ¶ 24. By this time, a third officer ("Officer Doe") had arrived at the scene. Either Ortiz or Doe then restrained Sebastian, pressed his face into the hood of a police car, and placed him in metal handcuffs. Sebastian claims that the handcuffs were engaged "in a manner purposely intended to cause pain and injury, cutting off the circulation in his hands, and cutting into the skin on his wrists." Id. ¶ 25. Sebastian complained, and either Officer Doe or Ortiz responded that "he knew of a way to make them tighter." Id.

         While Sebastian was restrained, the officers began to search the vehicle. Sebastian informed the officers that he had a firearm in the car, and with his assistance the officers located the gun in the side pocket of the driver side door, secured in its holster. Upon retrieving the firearm, which Sebastian had a permit to carry, Lieutenant Ortiz or Officer Grossman told Sebastian that he "would not that day, or ever, return to his job" as a security guard employed by Miami-Dade County. Id. ¶ 30.

         Lieutenant Ortiz then directed that a fourth officer, Daniel Crocker, place Sebastian in his vehicle for transportation to the police station. Doe or Ortiz replaced the metal handcuffs with plastic flex cuffs, again, allegedly, "intentionally tightening the cuffs in a manner purposely and wantonly intended to cause pain and further injury." Id. ¶ 32. Doe or Ortiz placed Sebastian in Officer Crocker's vehicle "in a position and manner that increased the pain caused by the over tightened flex-cuffs," and Crocker raised the windows and left Sebastian inside. Id. As the temperature inside the vehicle began to rise, Sebastian asked to have the windows rolled down; Officer Crocker rolled a rear window down one or two inches. He refused, however, to open the window further or loosen the flex cuffs as Sebastian complained that he was beginning to lose feeling in his hands. Sebastian remained in the car for an unspecified period of time, and after the completion of the search he was transported to a police station where he was detained for more than five hours, still handcuffed behind his back. He was charged in two counts with Resisting or Obstructing an Officer Without Violence under Fla. Stat. § 843.02 and one count of Reckless Display of a Firearm in violation of Fla. Stat. § 790.10. The charges were later dropped by the State Attorney, although Sebastian pleaded guilty to a noncriminal speeding violation under Fla. Stat. § 316.189(1).

         Sebastian further alleges that he "continues to suffer nerve damage to his hands and wrists, emotional pain and suffering, loss of employment, and reputational damages" as a result of the handcuffing and arrest. First Am. Compl. ¶ 44. His employment with Miami-Dade County was in fact terminated, and he has been unable to find work as a security guard elsewhere. In February 2016, Sebastian commenced this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida against each of the officers -- Ortiz, Grossman, Doe, and Crocker -- the City of Miami, and Chief of Police Rodolfo Llanes on a number of theories of liability. As relevant here, he asserted claims of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and supervisory liability for failure to stop unlawful acts against Lieutenant Ortiz.

         Ortiz moved to dismiss the charges on the ground of qualified immunity. The district court first concluded that the officers were entitled to make a custodial arrest because they had probable cause to believe Sebastian was speeding in violation of Fla. Stat. § 316.189(1), and this Court has held that officers are permitted to make custodial arrests for noncriminal offenses in Florida. See, e.g., Durruthy v. Pastor, 351 F.3d 1080, 1089 (11th Cir. 2003) (approving the arrest of a pedestrian for walking on the roadway where sidewalks were available for use); see also Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001). The trial court rejected Sebastian's argument that probable cause to arrest was vitiated since the officers decided to make the arrest solely because of his objections to the search, concluding that "the officers' subjective intentions and motivations play no role in the probable cause analysis." Under the "fellow officer rule," Grossman's probable cause to arrest Sebastian for speeding was imputed to Ortiz and the other officers, even though they arrived on the scene later.

         To begin the excessive force analysis, the district court rejected Sebastian's argument that any use of force was unlawful because the arrest itself was lawful and law enforcement officers are entitled to use some degree of force in effecting a lawful arrest. Indeed, this Court has recognized that a "typical arrest involves some force and injury." See, e.g., Rodriguez v. Farrell, 280 F.3d 1341, 1351 (11th Cir. 2002). Whether the use of force in making an arrest is excessive turns on multiple factors including the severity of the crime and whether the suspect posed a threat, was resisting, or fleeing. Applying this standard, the trial court held that the severe injuries Sebastian suffered from handcuffing provided a sufficient basis to deny qualified immunity and permit the claim to move forward to discovery. It concluded, however, that confining Sebastian inside the hot, unventilated car was not excessive force, especially since he suffered no lasting injuries from this conduct.

         The district court also determined that Sebastian had sufficiently alleged a supervisory liability claim against Lieutenant Ortiz for failure to stop unlawful acts by his officers. Sebastian was unsure whether Lieutenant Ortiz or Officer Doe actually applied the handcuffs, and his supervisory claim alleges that Ortiz failed to stop Doe's use of excessive force. Because the court found that Sebastian ...

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