U.S. Supreme Court holds pretrial detainees suit under Due Process clause is analyzed under objective reasonableness standard only

Kingsley v. Hendrickson 14-6368 (U.S. June 22, 2015)

This is an excessive force case where the U.S. Supreme Court held the subjective awareness of individual officers was not relevant but the jury could have been confused by the instruction. [Comment: the officers wanted a subjective element applied because it meant the plaintiff had to prove they maliciously intended to harm him].

Pretrial detainee Kingsley asserts several jailors used excessive force on him while he was incarcerated. When moving Kingsley to another cell Kingsley refused to cooperate. He was hit with a Taser, forcibly removed and left in his newer cell for 15 minutes before handcuffs were removed.  Kingsley sued. At trial the jury was instructed the determination of “unreasonable force” must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer facing the same circumstances but also used the term “reckless disregard.”  The jury found for the officers and Kingsley appealed.  The Court of Appeals held the standard should have included a “subjective inquiry into the officer’s state of mind.”

The Court termed its analysis as a question of the officer’s state of mind with respect to the proper interpretation of the force that the officer deliberately (not accidentally or negligently) used.  The question cannot be a mechanical one and requires analysis of the facts and circumstances of each particular case. However, that being said, the Court ultimately determined “the appropriate standard for a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim is solely an objective one.” The presence of a sadistic or malicious element has no place in the proper analysis since pretrial detainees cannot be punished at all under the Due Process clause, much less sadistically or maliciously. The Court believed the jury instruction was error given its use of the term “recklessness” but defined it with objective standards. This could have confused the jury. It remanded to the court of appeals.

The dissent took issue with the implication that any determination of “unreasonable” force automatically equates to punishment prohibited by the Due Process Clause. Justice Alito dissents noting the Court has never decided whether a pretrial detainee can bring a Fourth Amendment claim based on the use of excessive force by a detention facility employee in the first place.

If you would like to read these opinions click here. BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, J., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion.