Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Third Circuit: Gratuitous Use of Force on Prisoner Negates Qualified Immunity Defense

by David M. Reutter

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in a lawsuit against a guard at New Jersey’s Cumberland County Jail (CCJ). The Court held the guard was not entitled to qualified immunity because it was clearly established at the time of the event that a guard could not gratuitously beat a prisoner.

The Court’s August 10, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal by CCJ guard Michael Williams. While at CCJ on February 25, 2015, Raheem Jacobs was involved in a fight with another pretrial detainee, Bruce Hanby. Less than thirty seconds after the fight ended, a group of guards entered the dorm and identified Hanby as a participant in the fight. He was taken to the medical unit.

About 15 minutes later, Williams and four other guards returned for Jacobs. When they entered the dorm, Jacobs was in the shower. The guards told him to finish showering and get dressed. As they waited for Jacobs, the guards stood around laughing and chatting with other detainees.

Why the guards descended on Jacobs was in dispute. The guards, except Williams, said during depositions that he responded “maybe” when asked if he was searching for a weapon while he was getting dressed. Yet, none of the guards mentioned that in their reports. Another guard said he asked Jacobs what he had in his hand. Jacobs allegedly responded with “something to the effect of F you guys… you guys are crazy.”

Although there was no audio recording the video of the incident made clear what happened. Jacobs was grabbed by guard Neil Armstrong and started to handcuff him behind his back. He did not resist. Williams then stood face-to-face with Jacobs. “Within seconds, Williams delivered a strike to Jacob’s neck and a punch to the side of his head,” the Court wrote. “After the first two blows, Armstrong put Jacobs in a neck hold and forced him to the ground as Williams delivered a backhand slap to Jacob’s face.”

From that point, part of the incident went out of camera view. Jacobs alleged the guards pinned him to the floor and prisoners punched and kneed him as he was handcuffed. On the way to the medical unit, Jacobs alleged he was slammed into the wall of the elevator, which had no video camera.

Each guard submitted a use of force report. After an investigation, it was determined that Williams used excessive force. He was criminally charged. Jacobs sued the guards for using excessive force on him in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The guards moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The district court denied the motion. Williams appealed.

The district court found Jacobs was “defenseless and obeying orders.” The Third Circuit concluded “even when the circumstances are viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer, the evidence construed in the light most favorable to Jacobs could lead a reasonable jury to find that Williams used objectively unreasonable force.” The jury could also find “Williams’s strikes were wholly gratuitous and objectively unreasonable.”

The Court also concluded “Williams’s conduct is nowhere near the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.” It found that precedent from the Supreme Court and the Third Circuit make clear that a physically restrained and nonthreatening prisoner cannot be struck by guards. The district court’s order was affirmed. See: Jacobs v. Cumberland County, 8 F.4th 187 (3d Cir. 2021). 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Jacobs v. Cumberland County