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Sixth Circuit Explores Excessive Force Legal Twilight Zone; Finds Fourth, not Fourteenth Amendment Controlled

On June 29, 2010, the Sixth Circuit held that a lower correct incorrectly applied the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than the Fourth Amendment to resolve a pre-trial detainee’s excessive force claim. Since the qualified immunity analysis was likely to carry, the court remanded for reconsideration.

Air Force First Lieutenant Louis Aldini was celebrating his 24th birthday in an Ohio bar with friends on May 13, 2006. He kicked a door and broke a window. Despite apologizing and offering to pay for the damages, bouncers tackled him and he was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Aldini was booked into the Montgomery County Jail at 2:11am, and he repeatedly demanded to make a phone call. Officer (Dustin) Johnson became irritated with Aldin’s persistent demands to use the phone. Officer Johnson turned around, said “that’s it” and moved towards Aldini. As Johnson approached Aldini backed up, placed his hands behind his head and said “I’m not resisting.”

Johnson pushed Aldini against a wall and tanked his hands down. Sergeant Troy Bodine and Officers Joshua Kaczmarek and Steven Leopold then joined in. They spun Aldini around, took him to the floor and viciously beat and kicked him. Aldini repeatedly said, ‘cuff me.’ However, officers held his body, face down and elevated above the floor with a person holding each leg and arm in a crucifix or Vitruvian Man position. They punched and kicked him and said, “How do you like taking these orders officer.” Aldini screamed for help but no one came to stop the beating.

Officers, then tased Aldini repeatedly. Someone said that Aldini was going to die in the jail that night and the officers asked him why he did not just pass out and what kind of drugs he was on. Aldini said, ‘just kill me’ when he could no longer stand the torture. When the officers were finished, around 3am, Aldini was bleeding profusely, with blood coating his face. He pleaded for help.

Officers put a hood on Aldini and restrained him in a chair until 6am. He was afraid they would beat him again once he was tied down. When Aldini’s girlfriend paid his bond, he was ordered to clean his face to remove the blood for his booking photo and he was released.

Aldini was treated at a hospital after release. Medical records indicate that he had a 3cm laceration over his left eye and a 1cm laceration on his face, requiring a total of six sutures. Contrary to Bodine’s claim that Aldini was tasered just twice, doctors found at least six twin taser marks on his back. His head showed signs of trauma including multiple areas of swelling and bruising. He also had bruising on his back and skin irritation on his wrists. Aldini’s whole body was in pain, including the side of his head, nose, neck, and back.

Aldini sued Johnson, Kaczmarek, Leopol, Bodine and two other officers, alleging excessive force, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. He also alleged several state tort violations. The district court analyzed Aldini’s excessive force claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, and granted Leopol and Kaczmarek qualified immunity on all claims. The parties cross appealed the immunity rulings.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has deliberately left undecided the question of whether the Forth Amendment continues to provide protection against deliberate use of excessive force beyond the point at which arrest ends and pretrial detention begins. A circuit split has emerged from this legal ‘twilight zone’, Wilson v. Spain, 209 F.3d 713, 715 (8th Cir. 2000).

The court joined the Ninth and Tenth Circuits in selling the dividing line between the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment zones of protection at the probable cause hearing. See: Pierce v. Multnomah County, 76 F.3d 1032, 1043 (9th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1006, 117 S.Ct 506 (1996) and Austin v. Hamilton, 945 F.2d 1155, 1160 (10th Cir. 1991). Since it is undisputed that the beating and tasing took place in the middle of the booking procedure, and prior to a probable cause hearing, the lower court incorrectly applied the Fourteenth Amendment standard.

While force found to shock the conscience under the Fourteenth Amendment will necessarily violate the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness test, the court observed that force that does not shock the conscience may never the less be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Since the district court found that the actions of Officer Johnson violated the Fourteenth Amendment, The Sixth Circuit held that failing to apply the Fourth Amendment was a harmless error with respect to Johnson. With respect to Bodine, Leopold and Kaczmarek however, the court held that a review of the record leads it to believe that a different result could be possible under the Fourth Amendment and therefore the error does not appear to be harmless. See: Aldini v. Johnson, 609 F.3d 858 (6th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Aldini v. Johnson