Justices Revive Inmate’s Excessive-Force Claim

     (CN) – A divided Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Wisconsin man who said jailers pummeled and used a Taser on him as he awaited trial on drug chargers.
     Michael Kingsley brought the pro se lawsuit against the Monroe County Jail in Sparta, Wis. in December 2010, claiming officers attacked him during a dispute over a piece of paper that was covering a light fixture in his cell.
     Kingsley said he denied having put the paper up and refused to remove it, and that several officers roughed him up when he ignored their orders to get up from his bunk.
     He said he was handcuffed and carried to another cell, but once there officers had trouble removing his handcuffs, and one of the officers, Sgt. Stan Hendrickson, placed his knee into his back.
     The officers said Kingsley was resisting and trying to stand up. They deny Kingsley’s claim that one of them slammed Kingsley’s head against the concrete bunk after he complained about the knee in his back.
     Kingsley also claimed another officers, Deputy Fritz Degner, used a Taser on him.
     Although he named a number of defendants in his complaint, only Kingsley’s excessive-force claims against Hendrickson and Degner went to trial, and the former inmate appealed to the Seventh Circuit after a federal jury ruled against him.
     In affirming the ruling in favor of the officers, a divided three-judge panel for the Chicago-based federal appeals court rejected Kingsley’s claim that the jury received incorrect and confusing instructions.
     Both parties initially objected to the proposed jury instruction on excessive force, according to the ruling, and the final version included the word “reckless” throughout as a consideration of whether the officers did what the plaintiff alleged.
     Kingsley’s appeal hinged on whether the jurors improperly looked at the intent of the officers, and the harm he suffered, conflating the broader standard under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment for a pretrial detainee with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment of convicted prisoners.
     But the 7th Circuit ruling emphasizes that “the existence of intent – at least recklessness – is a requirement in Fourteenth Amendment excessive force cases.” The court also found that Kingsley forfeited his challenge as to harm by not directly challenging it at trial.
     On Monday, the majority in the 5-4 ruling sided with Kingsley, holding that he only needed to show the conduct of the officers was “objectively unreasonable” for him to prevail on an excessive force claim.
     “Thus, the defendant’s states of mind is not a matter that a plaintiff is required to prove,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer in an opinion joined by Justices William Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
     Breyer said several considerations led the majority to adopt this position, the first being the precedent established by Bell v. Wolfish, in which the high court held that the Due Process Clause forbids holding pretrial detainees in conditions that “amount to punishment.”
     “Our standard is also consistent with our use of an objective ‘excessive force’ standard where officers apply force to a person who, like Kingsley, has been accused but not convicted of a crime, but who, unlike Kingsley, is free on bail,” the justice wrote.
     “For another thing, experience suggests that an objective standard is workable,” Breyer continued. “It is consistent with the pattern jury instructions used in Several Circuits. We are also told that many facilities, including the facility at issue here, train officers to interact with all detainees as if the officers’ conduct is subject to an objective reasonableness standard.”
     “Finally, the use of an objective standard adequately protects an officer who acts in good faith,” the justice said.
     Breyer said this being the case, the majority agreed with Kingsley’s contention that the instructions given the jury in his case were erroneous. However, “because the question whether that error was harmless may depend in part on the detailed specifics of this case, we leave that question for the Court of Appeals to resolve in the first instance.”
     But Justice Antonin Scalia, whose dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, found that majority’s position highly suspect.
     “The Constitution contains no freestanding prohibition of excessive force,” he declared in the opening sentence of his dissent. “There are, however, four constitutional provisions that we have said forbid the use of excessive force in certain circumstances.”
     “the only question before us is whether a pretrial detainee’s due process rights are violated when ‘the force purposefully or knowingly used against him [is] objectively unreasonable.’ … In my view, the answer is no,” Scalia wrote.
     While Scalia said he agreed that the Due Process Clause protects a pretrial detainee from the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment, “I disagree … that any intentional application of force that is objectively unreasonable in degree is a use of excessive force that ‘amounts to punishment.’
     “The Court reaches that conclusion by misreading Bell as forbidding States to take any harmful action against pretrial detainees that is not ‘reasonably related to a legitimate goal,'” Scalia wrote.
     “In sum: Bell makes intent to punish the focus of its due-process analysis,” he continued. “Objective reasonableness of the force used is nothing more than a heuristic for identifying this intent. That heuristic makes good sense for considered decisions by the detaining authority, but is much weaker in the context of excessive force claims. Kingsley does not argue that respondents actually intended to punish him, and his reliance on Bell to infer such an intent is misplaced.”
     In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said he would have dismissed the case as improvidently granted.
     I would not decide the due process issue presented in this case until the availability of a Fourth Amendment claim is settled,” Alito wrote.

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