Skip to Content

Police Excessive Force and Restraint Asphyxia


One of the duties of law enforcement officers is to protect the lives of those they serve. Occasionally, police officers fail to fulfill this responsibility and instead endanger the lives of their fellow citizens through the use of unnecessary, unreasonable and excessive force. Over the years, our country has consistently borne witness to the sometimes deadly consequences of police officers' abusive use of excessive force. Estimates of how many individuals are killed annually by police officers range from 400 to more than 1,000.

Under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer may only use such force as is "objectively reasonable" under all of the circumstances. In other words, the officer's conduct must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene and not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

One troubling example of excessive force occurs when an individual suffers from restraint asphyxia due to certain law enforcement tactics. Unreasonably excessive use of force violates a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights, and such police abuse can lead to repercussions such as civil liability and criminal prosecution.

When Does Use of Force Become Excessive?

The general rule is that police officers may use reasonable force to take an individual into custody; however, there is no universal definition of reasonable force. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says the test for excessive force "is whether the officer reasonably believed such force to be necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose." California Penal Code Section 835a states that "[a]ny peace officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance."

Whether an officer's use of force in arresting someone was reasonable or not is decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis. To make such a decision, courts will consider:

  • the severity of the crime that was allegedly committed;
  • whether the suspect posed a threat to the officer or others at the scene; and
  • whether the suspect was actively trying to flee or resisting arrest (Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)).

Reasonableness is judged according to the perspective of the officer at the scene rather than through hindsight or the perspective of a reasonable, well-trained officer acting appropriately under the circumstances of the case.

Restraint Asphyxia

Restraint asphyxia, also referred to as positional asphyxia or restraint-related asphyxia, is just one potential consequence of excessive force. It occurs when the position of a person's body obstructs his or her ability to breathe properly. This can occur when law enforcement officers employ a technique called "prone restraint" to control a suspect by placing her or him in a hog-tied, prone position – i.e.__, when the suspect is lying on his or her stomach with feet and hands bound behind the back.

Use of this position is risky and can cause the suspect to experience difficulty in breathing. It may also lead the suspect to struggle in order to find a better position to increase oxygen intake. The arresting officer may perceive this movement as resistance and respond with greater force, thereby increasing the severity of the oxygen restriction. In some circumstances, an officer's use of the prone restraint technique is combined with the use of pepper spray, pressure from the police officer on the upper extremities and back, and the piling on of multiple police officers during the arrest. Such restraint may lead to serious brain injuries or even death.

Do You Have Questions About Excessive Force?

If you or a loved one was the victim of asphyxiation or suffocation by a Los Angeles or Orange County police officer, call police brutality attorney Scott D. Hughes at (714) 423-6928 today to review your potential claims. Attorney Hughes can evaluate the viability of a civil lawsuit against police officers, investigate allegations, and help you pursue compensation.


Amnesty International, Deadly Force: Police Use of Lethal Force in the United States, 2015.

California Penal Code Section 833-851.90.

Donald T. Reay, Suspect Restraint and Sudden Death, May 1996.

Irving Joyner, Scalawag, The Police, the Law, and the Unjustified Use of Force, July 8, 2015.

Mark Clark, Police Magazine, Understanding Graham v. Connor, October 27, 2014.

Paul Bergman, Nolo, How Much Force Officers Can Use During Arrest.

Tom McEwen, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice, National Data Collection on Police Use of Force, 1996.

Share To: