(CN) – The excessive force claims of an Air Force officer who was allegedly beaten and tased by several jailers must be reconsidered, the 6th Circuit ruled, finding that the fourth amendment protects a pretrial detainee through a probable-cause hearing.
The district court used the wrong constitutional standard in deciding whether four corrections officers were immune from prosecution following the 2006 beating of Lt. Louis Aldini Jr. in an Ohio jail cell, the federal appellate panel ruled.
After being arrested for criminal damage at a bar where he’d been celebrating his birthday, the 24-year-old Aldini repeatedly asked to use the phone while awaiting booking at the local jail. Having “pushed their buttons,” at least four corrections officers beat and tased Aldini so badly that he begged them to kill him, according to the ruling.
Reasoning that since Aldini was no longer in the custody of the arresting officer at the time of the beating, the district court applied the fourteenth amendment standard and denied qualified immunity to one of the jailers, granted it to two others and left a fourth jailer’s fate for a jury to decide.
Both Aldini and the jailers appealed, and the Cincinnati-based appellate panel vacated all but one of the rulings.
While the Supreme Court has “deliberately left the question of what law protects these post-arrest, pre-conviction detainees vague,” it has found that “individuals who have not had a probable-cause hearing are not yet pretrial detainees for constitutional purposes,” Judge Boyce Martin wrote. The high court has also “made it clear that the legal status of the victim” of excessive force should determine which constitutional standard is used, Martin added.
“Thus, unlike the arrestee’s transfer out of the arresting officer’s custody or the completion of booking procedures, the probable-cause hearing is a judicial proceeding that affects the ‘legal status’ of the arrestee, constitutionally authorizing his detention throughout the proceedings against him, just as a guilty verdict affects his ‘legal status’ by authorizing his detention for the duration of his sentence,” Martin wrote. “Consistency with our pronouncement that ‘the legal status of the [plaintiff] determines [which] amendment governs his excessive force claims,’ requires extending the fourth amendment’s protection until this change in legal status occurs.”
Since Aldini’s beating and tasing took place in the middle of the booking procedure, the district court should have applied the “objective reasonableness” standard to the jailers’ actions rather than the “substantially higher hurdle” of the fourteenth amendment’s shock-the-conscience standard, Martin wrote.
“While force found to shock the conscience under the fourteenth amendment will necessarily violate the fourth amendment’s reasonableness test, force that does not shock the conscience may nevertheless be unreasonable under the fourth amendment,” Martin added. “The Fourth Amendment’s standard only permits an officer to use reasonable force to protect himself from a reasonable threat.”
The three-judge appellate panel upheld the district court’s denial of immunity to one jailer, as his actions violated the fourteenth amendment and rendered the error harmless. The panel vacated the remainder of the court’s rulings and remanded them for analysis under the fourth amendment.