Plaintiff Enrique Avina sued for excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights after Milwaukee police officers broke his arm while attempting to handcuff him during his arrest for trespass. Plaintiff testified that one of the officers grabbed his Plaintiff’s wrist while placing his other hand on Plaintiff’s upper right arm. Plaintiff claimed that the officer then moved his arm halfway up his back, causing his upper arm to break. The lower court found that the officer’s action of raising up the Plaintiff’s arm during arrest was “entirely ordinary and expected” even though the injury was unusual. Thus, the lower court reasoned that the officer’s actions were reasonable and did not violate Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.
The Seventh Circuit Appellate Court disagreed and reversed the decision in Avina v. Bohlen, No. 17-1902 (7th Cir. 2018). The Court reasoned that the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the arrestee, showed that the arrestee was fully cooperative while being placed in handcuffs, yet, the police officer managed to break the arrestee’s arm while placing him in the handcuffs. Those two pieces of information did not support the conclusion that the officer used objectively reasonable force. The Appellate Court distinguished cases in which the officer’s conduct has the obviously potential to cause serious injury. However, since handcuffing a cooperative arrestee is typically not a dangerous endeavor, Plaintiff’s broken arm leads to an inference that something more occurred. The Court noted that it strained the imagination to envision a scenario in which an officer could place a cooperative suspect’s hands behind his back and break his arm if the officer was using reasonable force. Finally, the Court confirmed the long-standing rule that an arrestee cannot survive summary judgment based solely on the severity of his injury. Yet, Plaintiff in this case identified the officer’s specific unreasonable conduct: raising his arm behind his back with enough force to break the bone.