Police Officer Must Have Probable Cause to Handcuff Man Reported to Be Suicidal; Ruling Not Disturbed

Article excerpt

When a dispatcher relays to a police officer a call for assistance, the information provided may include a "mental health code" designed to alert the responding officer that mental illness may play a role in the encounter. In a case from Ohio, two sheriff's deputies were told incorrectly that a man had his feet tied to a set of railroad tracks and they were dispatched pursuant to a "Code 58," which indicates a possible suicide. In actuality, a seventy-seven-year-old retired farmer had gone out to shoot groundhogs in a rural farming area, an activity in which he routinely engaged to help protect his neighbor's crops. The man had taken with him a folding chair, his rifle, and a tripod to steady his rifle, and positioned himself upon an elevated railroad grade on a neighbor's property roughly 250 yards from a rural road. A passerby had seen him and telephoned the Sheriff's Department. The responding deputies found the man seated in his folding chair. From the road, they used the speaker system in their cruiser to instruct the man to come toward them. The man stood up, gathered his belongings, and began walking along the railroad tracks towards the officers.

As he approached, the officers noticed that the man had a rifle slung over his shoulder. They drew their firearms, crouched behind the open doors of their vehicle, and ordered the man to lay down the rifle before coming any closer. Because the man appeared to be unable to hear their initial command, the officers repeated their instructions. Upon hearing their command at a distance of 200 yards, the man readily complied. For the next couple of minutes, with nothing in his hands, the man continued to walk in a normal fashion towards the officers and did not say or do anything out of the ordinary. Although it became apparent to the officers that he was an older gentleman, when he reached the road the officers directed the man to walk backwards toward them, which he did. After he reached them, still at gunpoint, the officers commanded the man to lay face down on the roadway and handcuffed his arms behind his back.

At this point the man went into cardiac arrest. After unsuccessfully attempting to stand the man on his feet, the officers left him handcuffed and lying on the ground while one of the officers retrieved the objects the man had placed on the ground. A few minutes later, another deputy arrived, as well as a woman who lived nearby. The woman, unable to attain the attention of the other deputies, informed the newly arrived deputy that the man had a heart condition. This deputy, observing the man's distressed state, removed his handcuffs, turned him on his back, and called for medical assistance. The man, however, was left permanently disabled as a result of the incident.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled that the man could pursue a federal lawsuit against the deputies for violating his constitutional rights. The court held that, absent suspected criminal activity, a law enforcement official may not physically restrain an individual merely to assess his mental health. Further, to seize an individual believed to be suicidal, an officer must have probable cause to believe that the person is dangerous to himself or others. Although this does not require that the individual exhibit actual dangerous behavior, it does require a probability or substantial chance of dangerous behavior as judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the position of the law enforcement official.

In this case, the Sixth Circuit concluded, the deputies could not demonstrate that they had probable cause to believe the man was a danger to himself or others. …