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Supreme Court: Pretrial Detainees Have Lower Standard for Force Claims

Melinda Morris
By: Melinda Morris
Jul. 07 2015

CourtColumns - 7474334 - MWhile most news about the Supreme Court in the recent week has understandably been on its historic decision on same-sex marriage, other important decisions have also come from the nation’s highest judicial body, including rulings affecting the criminal justice system. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Court considered the standard that should be used to determine whether a person who has been detained prior to trial and/or conviction was the victim of excessive force.

In the case, a Wisconsin man had been arrested and was detained in a county jail awaiting trial. Jail officers asked the man to remove a piece of paper covering a light fixture in his cell. The man refused several times. They finally told him to stand against a wall as they came in and removed the piece of paper. He refused. The officers handcuffed him, removed him from his cell and carried him to a nearby cell.

Officers claim that the detained man resisted their efforts to remove the handcuffs. The detainee claimed he did not resist, and that officers slammed his head into the concrete floor. What is not under dispute is that an officer then used a Taser on the detained man, stunning him for about five seconds. Officers then left the man on the floor for 15 minutes before taking him back to his cell.

The man filed a federal claim that officers had used excessive force. The claim was under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a civil rights matter. The man lost his case in District Court. The legal crux of the resulting appeal was over whether the standard for determining excessive force is an objective one or a subjective one.

In legal terms, an objective standard is one that is applied evenly – whether a fictional, objective officer would have known the force was unreasonable. A subjective standard is one that looks at whether the actor met the standard according to his or her own perspective. Generally, it is more difficult to prove a subjective standard than an objective standard.

In this case, the plaintiff – the detained man – argued that the Court should apply an objective standard in determining whether excessive force was used. His attorneys said the Court should determine the case based on whether the force was objectively unreasonable – whether that “reasonable officer” would have believed that force to be reasonable.

The Court found in their favor in a 5-4 decision. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion of the Court that forcing plaintiffs to prove subjective intent in these cases would violate the spirit of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which allows people to bring civil rights claims against the government. The case is remanded to original District Court to consider with this standard.

The ruling currently only applies to pretrial detainees. Part of the argument was that punishing people who had not been convicted would violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. However the Court appeared to leave open whether it may apply the same standard to people in prison after conviction who bring claims.

It’s important to remember that you have rights, even when you’re put behind bars and throughout the criminal process. Criminal defense attorneys help people protect and exercise those rights.

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