Kingsley v. Hendrickson: New Supreme Court Pretrial Detainee Excessive Force Decision
Kinsgley v. Hendrickson: What Standard Governs Pretrial Detainee Due Process Excessive Force Claims?
The Supreme Court granted certiorari and then reversed the Seventh Circuit in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. – (2015)(No. 14-6368), revg Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 744 F.3d 443 (7th Cir. 2014)(Judge Hamilton dissenting), a case involving the proper excessive force standard applicable to pretrial detainee claims brought under substantive due process. In this case, the plaintiff pretrial detainee alleged that the use of a taser against him constituted excessive force in violation of due process.
The Question Presented was “[w]hether the requirements of a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force claim brought by a plaintiff who was a pretrial detainee at the time of the incident are satisfied by a showing that the state actor deliberately used force against the pretrial detainee and the use of force was objectively unreasonable.”
The Court’s Opinion
In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court rejected the subjective inquiry used by the district court—that there must be “an actual intent to violate [the plaintiff’s] rights or reckless disregard for his rights”–and affirmed by the Seventh Circuit. Instead, the Court declared that the proper standard in such pretrial detainee substantive due process cases was one of objective reasonableness, the same standard required by the Fourth Amendment for police officers making arrests in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). The Court did not accept the defendant correctional officers’ contention that because this was a prison setting, under Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), the plaintiff pretrial detainee was required to prove that he was “punished” by them, meaning that at the least the defendants must have been subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable.
The Court went on to explain why this objective reasonableness standard would not unduly burden corrections officers. For one thing, the use of force must be determined from the perspective of a reasonable corrections officer at the time. For another, the objective reasonableness standard was workable and consistent with the pattern jury instructions used in several Circuits. For a third, the standard adequately protected corrections officers who acted in good faith because jail circumstances, including security and order, must be taken into account in making the objective reasonableness determination. Finally, the availability of qualified immunity to corrections officers provided an additional margin for error. See Chapter 8 of NAHMOD, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2014)(West).
Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, dissented, arguing that “punishment” was required under due process and that the infliction of objectively unreasonable force, standing alone, was not sufficient for this purpose. They also questioned whether a pretrial detainee had a liberty interest in freedom form objectively unreasonable force. Justice Alito also dissented, maintaining that certiorari was improvidently granted. In his view, the Court should first determine whether a pretrial detainee can bring a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim before reaching the substantive due process claim involved in Kingsley.
Kingsley is a sound decision. It finally puts to rest the split in the circuits regarding the proper excessive force standard for pretrial detainees, an issue that had been percolating in the circuits for some time.
In addition, so long as relevant security factors are plugged into the objective reasonableness inquiry, pretrial detainees are not being unduly advantaged to the detriment of the need to maintain security and order.
Perhaps most important, it would have been fundamentally unfair for pretrial detainees, who by definition have not been convicted of anything, to be governed by a subjective inquiry of the sort the governs excessive force claims brought under the Eighth Amendment by those already convicted. Kingsley property treats pretrial detainees as free citizens in this context.
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