SCOTUS Heightens the Legal Standard in Use of Force Case involving Pre-Trial Detainees from Officer’s Subjective Belief to what is “Objectively Reasonable” – by Sean Keenan

Summary

This week, the Supreme Court in Kingsley v. Hedrickson made it easier for inmates who are accused of crimes – but not yet convicted – to defeat summary judgment in excessive force claims against jail officials, ruling that officers will be held to an objective standard about whether the use of force was reasonable rather than the old subjective standard. This case arises out of an incident in a Wisconsin jail. Petitioner Kingsley was waiting for trial when he got into a dispute with jail officers, who handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from his cell, and later tased him. Kingsley filed a lawsuit, alleging that jail officials had used excessive force. The Court ruled in favor of Kingsley, holding that courts should apply an objective test – the same Fourth Amendment excessive force test that applies to people who have not been arrested. In effect, the Supreme Court rejected the old rule that focused on of whether the officer was subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable.

Practical Application

This ruling will make it a little more difficult for jailers to win on summary judgment, given the standard has changed from what the jailer was subjectively thinking to what a court will think is reasonable use of force when applying an objective standard.

Holding

The Supreme Court held that under 42 U.S.C. 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim. Test: This objective determination must be made from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, including what the officer knew at the time, and must account for the legitimate interests stemming from the government’s need to manage the facility in which the individual is detained. Thus, the defendant officers’ state of mind is not a matter that a plaintiff is required to prove.

The Court reasoned that this standard is consistent with their precedent, focusing on Bell v. Wolfish. In Bell, for instance, the Court held that a pretrial detainee could prevail on a claim that his due process rights were violated by providing only objective evidence that the challenged governmental action was not rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective or that it was excessive in relation to that purpose. The Court further stated that this objective standard is consistent with the use of an “objective force” standard where officers apply force to a person who, like Kingsley, has been accused but not convicted of a crime, but whom, unlike Kingsley, is free on bail. Finally, the use of an objective standard adequately protects an officer who acts in good faith.