WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court refused to reopen the case of a man whom Prince George’s County Police left handcuffed to a pole in a dark, empty parking lot, saying the officers could not have known their actions violated his constitutional rights.
The published opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds an August ruling by a panel of the same court, which said that the 1996 cuffing of Nelson O. Robles was “nothing more than a prank, however misdirected.”
“The district court felt strongly that the officers had not been placed on notice that their behavior, however dumb, violated a clearly established constitutional right,” Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the court. Because of that, the officers enjoyed qualified immunity for their actions.
The sole dissenter on the court called the majority opinion a “breathtaking expansion of the qualified immunity doctrine.”
Judge J. Michael Luttig wrote that the officers’ behavior was so clearly prohibited by the Constitution that he “would think it an affront to law enforcement officers to be told that they would not reasonably know that such conduct was violative of a detainee’s rights.”
The case began on Aug. 17, 1996, when Prince George’s County police, responding to a report of a disturbance at a Langley Park apartment complex, arrested Robles on an outstanding traffic warrant from Montgomery County.
When the officers called Montgomery County police to see if they could hand Robles over at the county border, they were told the Montgomery officers were too busy. At that point, court documents say, the Prince George’s officers decided to pull a “prank.”
They handcuffed Robles to a pole in the Hillandale Shopping Center at 3 a.m. and placed an anonymous call to Montgomery County police. Then they left.
Robles’ attorney, Christopher Allen Griffiths, said that one of the officers told Robles: “We do not have time to baby-sit you. Escape if you can.”
He said Robles was terrified and his thoughts were not of escape but of rescue.
Court papers said it was 10 minutes before Montgomery County police showed up. But Luttig wrote that Robles “remained handcuffed to the shopping center pole for sometime even after the Montgomery County Police Department arrived, at what they understood to be a crime scene, because of an inability to sever the handcuffs.”
The judge also noted the “sheer danger” of shackling someone in a deserted shopping center, a fact made evident by the recent sniper killings “that reached to the identical shopping center” where Robles was handcuffed.
The officers admitted in court that they knew that their actions were wrong and that there was no legitimate law enforcement purpose for leaving Robles tied to the pole with three flex-cuffs.
Robles sued and a district court awarded him $647,000 in damages. But the trial court said that award was too high, and it gave Robles a choice of a $240,000 award or a new trial. He chose a new trial, on damages alone, which resulted in a jury award of $40,000.
Robles lost his first appeal to the circuit court, which refused Tuesday to reconsider that decision. Wilkinson said Robles “could have taken the $240,000 and banked it. Instead he decided to roll the dice.”
Had the court recognized a violation of Robles’ constitutional rights, the county would have been compelled to pay his court costs.
But the court argued that police officers have to be explicitly informed beforehand that the act of leaving someone handcuffed to a pole in an abandoned parking lot at 3 a.m. was a violation of that persons constitutional rights.
Wilkinson said that concept of notice “is rooted in case law” and that neither Robles nor Luttig could cite “even one case that is factually in the neighborhood with this one.”
Griffiths said there is a reason for that.
“With such outrageous behavior it is difficult to find a precedent in case law,” he said.
Griffiths said that the appeals court decision to uphold the lesser award “really eats into his (Robles’) ability to recover damages.” While Wilkinson said “the officers did not go unpunished,” Griffiths said that one of the two officers involved is still working the same beat.
He said the officers took advantage of the fact that Robles spoke little English. “They thought that they could get away with this,” Griffiths said.
The Prince George’s County Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case Wednesday. Griffiths said an appeal has already been filed with the Supreme Court. -30- CNS 10