Supreme Court Rules Against Jails in Excessive Force Case

In Kingsley v. Hendrickson the Supreme Court held 5-4 that to prove an excessive force claim a pretrial detainee must show that the officer’s force was objectively unreasonable, rejecting the subjectively unreasonable standard that is more deferential to law enforcement. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case arguing for a subjective standard. As a result of this ruling it will be easier for pretrial detainees to bring successful excessive force claims against corrections officers.  

Pretrial detainee Michael Kingsley and the officers in this case agree that Kingsley refused to remove a piece of paper covering a light fixture and was forcibly removed from his jail cell so that officers could remove it. While Kingsley claims, and the officers disagree, that Kingsley resisted their efforts to remove his handcuffs and in the process the officers slammed his head against the concrete bunk, the parties agree that Kingsley was tasered.

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages for constitutional violations. At least until this case, the constitutional standard for excessive force were clear for arrestees and post-conviction detainees. For post-conviction detainees, officers may not act with a subjective “deliberate indifference,” while for arrestees, officers may not act “objectively unreasonable.”

The Court held that the objective standard should apply to excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees, relying partially on precedent. In a previous case involving prison conditions affecting pretrial detainees, Bell v. Wolfish (1979), the Court used an objective standard to evaluate a prison’s practice of double bunking. And the Court pointed out that the objective standard applies to those who, like Kingsley, have been accused but not convicted of a crime, but who unlike Kingsley are free on bail.

While the Court claims that the objective standard is “workable,” the SLLC’s amicus brief argued that it is not and that the same subjective standard should apply to both pretrial detainees and post-conviction detainees. Jails generally commingle these two categories of inmates, and the extremely high turnover rate of jails leaves officers little time to become familiar with each individual. Pretrial detainees are often more dangerous than the post-conviction detainees housed in jails because post-conviction detainees in jails generally are serving time for relatively minor offenses whereas pretrial detainees are awaiting trial for all manner of offenses, including serious and violent crimes.

Ironically, surprisingly, and even worse for state and local government, the Court seems to acknowledge the problem of different force standards applying to pre-trial detainees and post-conviction detainees and suggests that the objective standard may apply to excessive force claims brought by post-conviction detainees.

We acknowledge that our view that an objective standard is appropriate in the context of excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment may raise questions about the use of a subjective standard in the context of excessive force claims brought by convicted prisoners. We are not confronted with such a claim, however, so we need not address that issue today.

State and local governments should expect to see a case seeking to establish that the objective standard applies to post-conviction detainee excessive force claims shortly.

For more analysis on this case particularly as it relates to the implications of it for excessive force claims brought by post-conviction detainees see Richard Re’s posting on SCOTUSblog.

Aaron Streett, Joshua Davis, J. Mark Little, and Shane Pennington, Baker Botts wrote the SLLC brief which was joined by the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association, the International Municipal Lawyers Association joined the brief.