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Supreme Court Clarifies Legal Standard for Pre-Trial Detainee Excessive Force Claims

Supreme Court Clarifies Legal Standard for Pre-Trial Detainee Excessive Force Claims

by Derek Gilna

Mchael B. Kingsley, a pre-trial detainee in a Wisconsin county jail, filed a § 1983 federal civil rights action alleging that deputies had used excessive force and inflicted serious injuries when they removed him from his cell. At trial, the jury found for the defendants and Kingsley’s appeal was denied by the Seventh Circuit. However, in an important decision that affects only pretrial detainees but lays important groundwork for excessive force claims involving convicted prisoners, the Supreme Court reversed.

On June 22, 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the Court framed the issue as follows:
“[W]hether, to prove an excessive force claim, a pretrial detainee must show that the officers were ‘subjectively’aware that their use of force was unreasonable, or only that the officers’ use of that force was ‘objectively’unreasonable. We conclude that the latter standard is the correct one.”

Jail staff, including Sergeant Stan Hendrickson and Deputy Fritz Degner, had removed Kingsley from his cell in handcuffs after he refused to remove a piece of paper from a light fixture. Kingsley was injured during the May 2010 cell extraction, and in a subsequent lawsuit alleged the deputies had used excessive force, including slamming his head against a concrete bunk while he was cuffed. The deputies denied his accusations. The parties did agree, according to the opinion, that “Hendrickson directed Degner to stun Kingsley with a Taser; Degner applied a Taser to Kingsley’s back for approximately five seconds; the officers then left the hand­cuffed Kingsley alone in the receiving cell; and officers returned to the cell 15 minutes later and removed Kings­ley’s handcuffs.”

The district court denied the deputies’ motion to dismiss and the case proceeded to trial. At the close of evidence, the court instructed the jury as follows: “Excessive force means force applied recklesslythat is unreasonable in light of the facts and circumstances of the time. Thus, to succeed on his claim of excessive use of force, plaintiff must prove each of the following factors by a preponderance of the evidence....”

Kingsley objected to the instruction, arguing that “the correct standard for judging a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim is objective unreasonableness,” the Supreme Court noted. The jury instruction, Kingsley said, “did not hew to that standard.”

The Court wrote that the doctrine of objective reasonableness turns on the “facts and circumstances of each particular case,” citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), using the perspective of “a reasonable officer on the scene....” However, it should “also account for the ‘legitimate interests that stem from [the govern-ment’s] need to manage the facility in which the individual is detained,’ appropriately deferring to ‘policies and prac-tices that in th[e] judgment’ of jail officials ‘are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.’”

The Supreme Court dismissed the defendants’ argument that a subjective standard was appropriate in this case, stating that an objective standard was “workable” and “adequately protects an officer who acts in good faith.” Thus, the Court concluded that for the purpose of excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees, a standard of objective reasonableness controls.

While finding the district court’s “subjective” analysis inappropriate, the Court limited the scope of its ruling to claims brought by pretrial detainees under the Fourteenth Amendment, declining to extend it to convicted prisoners, whose excessive force claims are controlled by the Eighth Amendment’s deliberate indifference standard.

The Supreme Court acknowledged “that our view that an objective standard is appropriate in the context of excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment may raise questions about the use of a subjective standard in the context of excessive force claims brought by convicted prisoners. We are not confronted with such a claim, however, so we need not address that issue today.”

The case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Kingsley v. Hendrickson, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 14-6368; 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4073.


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Related legal case

Kingsley v. Hendrickson