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SCOTUS reverses 7th Circuit on standard for excessive force claims

Kingsley v. Hendrickson, No. 14-6368, 6/22/15, reversing Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 744 F.3d 443 (7th Cir. 2014); SCOTUSblog page (including links to briefs and commentary)

Although the SPD doesn’t appoint counsel to litigate excessive force claims against law enforcement, this case may interest your clients. It stems from a deputy’s tasing of a pre-trial detainee at the Monroe County Jail in Sparta, Wisconsin.  In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS held for the detainee. To prevail on an excessive force claim under § 42 U.S.C. §1983, the detainee must show only that the force purposefully or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.

Kingsley was arrested  on a drug charge and detained in the Monroe County Jail where he put a piece of paper over the light fixture above his bed. An officer told him to take it down. He refused. One thing led to another. Ultimately, officers cuffed Kingsley, forcibly removed him from his cell, placed him face down on a concrete bunk in a receiving cell, slammed his head into it (the officer denies that one) and then tased him for 5 seconds.

The issue was whether the jury instruction stated the proper standard for judging a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim. The district court and the Seventh Circuit held that the law requires a subjective inquiry into the officer’s state of mind–the question being whether the officers actually intended to violate or recklessly disregarded Kingsley’s rights.  Breyer, writing for the majority, held that “a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.” Slip op. at 6. He further explained:

A court must make this determination from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, including what the officer knew at the time, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. See ibid. A court must also account for the “legitimate interests that stem from [the government’s] need to manage the facility in which the individual is detained,” appropriately deferring to “policies and practices that in th[e] judgment” of jail officials “are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520, 540, 547 (1979).

Considerations such as the following may bear on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the force used: the relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used; the extent of the plaintiff’s injury; any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force; the severity of the security problem at issue; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting. See, e.g., Graham, supra, at 396. We do not consider this list to be exclusive. We mention these factors only to illustrate the types of objective circumstances potentially relevant to a determination of excessive force. Slip op. at 7.

The court remanded the case to the 7th Circuit for a determination of whether the jury’s application of the wrong legal standard was harmless error given the facts of this case. Scalia agrees that “the Due Process Clause protects a pretrial detainee from the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment.” Dissent at 1. He says, “It is illogical, however, automatically to infer punitive intent from the fact that a prison guard used more force against a pretrial detainee than was necessary. . . .That an officer used more force than necessary might be evidence that he acted with intent to punish, but it is no more than that.” Dissent at 3.  Actually, Scalia doesn’t  think that substantive due process applies to this situation at all. Dissent at 4. In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Alito said that SCOTUS improvidently granted review in this case. The court has not yet decided whether a pretrial detainee may bring a 4th Amendment claim based on excessive use of force. If the detainee can, then he shouldn’t be allowed to rely on substantive due process. Alito would wait until the 4th Amendment claim is resolved before deciding the issue in this case.

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