Supreme Court to Determine Standard for Constitutional Excessive Force Claims by Pretrial Detainees


By: E. Andy Treese

The Supreme Court of the United States will soon decide the legal standard used to analyze claims of constitutionally excessive force asserted by pretrial detainees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  The case is Kingsley v. Hendrickson, docket no. 14-6368.

The Facts: Michael Kingsley was a pretrial detainee in Monroe County, Wisconsin who refused verbal commands to remove a piece of paper he had affixed to a light in his cell.  Detention officers handcuffed Kingsley and moved him to another cell so that jail staff could remove the paper.  Once Kingsley arrived at the new cell, officers tried to remove the handcuffs, but he allegedly resisted.  The officers tased Kingsley one time, for five seconds, then left the cell.  Other officers returned later and removed the handcuffs without incident.  Kingsley, who denied that he resisted the officers, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The case went to trial and resulted in a defense verdict.  On appeal, Kingsley argued that the trial judge gave a jury instruction which incorrectly described the legal standard applicable to his claim.

Legal Background: With regard to excessive force claims, the Court has previously held that the Fourth Amendment protects suspects from the use of force which is objectively unreasonable, but that the claims of a convicted prisoner are analyzed under the Eighth Amendment and require an inquiry into the officer’s subjective intent, i.e. whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.  The Court has not expressly applied either standard to pre-trial detainees, and has held in other contexts that constitutional protections of a pre-trial detainee held by a state originate in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than the Fourth or Eighth Amendments.

The question posed by the Kingsley case is whether the standard for excessive force claims originating in the Fourteenth Amendment should mirror the Fourth Amendment’s objective reasonableness standard; whether it should involve the same inquiry into subjective intent involved in the analysis of Eighth Amendment claims; or whether the test should fall in the middle ground. The federal circuit courts have split on the issue.

Potential Impact: Local jails routinely house both pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners.  If the Court imports the Eighth Amendment standard to Fourteenth Amendment claims by detainees, the ruling is likely to have minimal day to day impact on local sheriffs and correctional officers.  If the Court adopts the Fourth Amendment standard, or even departs significantly from the Eight Amendment, local officials may find that they now have custody of prisoners with varying degrees of constitutional protection.  The logistical implications of such an arrangement are not yet clear.

Oral argument was held April 27, 2015.   We will report further after the ruling, which is expected in June.