Cuff 'em: Policy, Procedure and the Police Auditor

As handcuffing by cops grows in prevalence, George Hostetter looks at the Fresno Police Auditor’s complicated role.


At this point, I need to justify my curiosity.


I got the distinct impression from city officials that I’m digging into areas – police use of handcuffs, the police auditor’s attitude toward handcuff policy – best left in the dark.

Turns out the U.S. Supreme Court has long had an interest in how and why the State conducts a “seizure” of the “person” – in other words, law enforcement’s use of restraint (such as handcuffs) to temporarily deny freedom to someone.

My brief journey on Google suggests two cases play key roles in the legal justification for police restraint/handcuffs in relatively routine situations: Michigan v. Summers (1981) and Muehler v. Mena (2005).

Let’s concentrate on Michigan v. Summers.

Both cases involve the Fourth Amendment. A footnote in Summers goes to the trouble of stating the amendment in full:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Please keep in mind as we proceed that my point here isn’t to suggest that the handcuffing of Maria (if it actually happened) was unreasonable or without probable cause. I’m not suggesting that Fresno police officers have ever used handcuffs without reason or probable cause. I’m only trying to show that the concept in play here – law enforcement’s use of handcuffs – has, on occasion, been of interest in places other than my mind.

George Summers lived in Detroit. Police officers had a warrant that allowed them go through his house in a search for narcotics. They didn’t have an arrest warrant for Summers.

When police got to the house, they found Summers heading down the front steps. Summers was on his way to someplace other than home.

One thing led to another, and pretty soon the officers had forced their way into Summers’ house. They had also used their authority to detain Summers inside his house.

The Court record doesn’t indicate whether Summers was handcuffed. Police procedure being what it is, it’s a safe bet he was. One of the reasons police use handcuffs is to ensure the safety of officers and citizens in potentially sticky situations.

The officers found narcotics in the house. They arrested Summers (now having probable cause), searched him and found a bag of heroin.

The question before the Court: Was the pre-arrest seizure of Summers constitutionally permissible even though the officers lacked probable cause to do so?

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said yes.

The majority: Warren Burger (chief justice), Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens.

The dissenters: Potter Stewart, Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan.

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