Monday, July 20, 2015

Supremes articulate objective test for pretrial detainee excessive force claims

The Supreme Court's 2014-15 term made big news in recognizing the right to same-sex marriage and upholding a central component of ObamaCare. But it did other things as well.In this case, the Court made it easier for pre-trial detainees to win their excessive force claims.

The case is Kingsley v. Henderickson, decided on June 22. Plaintiff was arrested on a drug charge and was awaiting trial. He was detained in the county jail. A few officers beat him up; plaintiff claims they slammed his head into concrete for no reason. The case went to trial and plaintiff lost. He appeals to the Supreme Court by challenging the jury charge, which asked whether the officers subjectively intended to use too much force. The Court disagrees with that charge, holding that the legal standard for pretrial detainees is whether the force used by the officers was objectively unreasonable.

The objective standard draws from Supreme Court authority in prior cases. In Bell v. Wolfish, the Court said, "in the absence of an expressed intent to punish, a pretrial detainee can nevertheless prevail by showing that the actions are not 'rationally related to a legitimate nonpunitive governmental purpose' or that the actions 'appear excessive in relation to that purpose.'” The Court adds:

The Bell Court applied this latter objective standard to evaluate a variety of prison conditions, including a prison’s practice of double-bunking.In doing so, it did not consider the prison officials’ subjective beliefs about the policy. Rather, the Court examined objective evidence, such as the size of the rooms and available amenities, before concluding that the conditions were reasonably related to the legitimate purpose of holding detainees for trial and did not appear excessive in relation to that purpose.
Since correctional institutions already train their officers to comply with an objective reasonableness standard, the standard here is workable, Justice Breyer says, and the objective test protects an officer who acts in good faith in light of the difficult job associated with running a corrections institution. 

No comments: