Vol. 30 No. 16 Objective Reasonableness Is The Standard Of Review For Uses Of Force On Pretrial Detainees


In a June 22, 2015, decision, the United States Supreme Court acted inKingsley v. Hendrickson, holding that uses of force on pretrial detainees will be evaluated on the standard of objective reasonableness, and not on the subjective knowledge or intent of an officer.


On the evening of May 20, 2010, an officer performing a cell check noticed a piece of paper covering the light fixture above Kingsley’s bed. The officer told Kingsley to remove it, but Kingsley refused; subsequently other officers told Kingsley to remove the paper; and each time Kingsley refused. The next morning, the jail administrator, Lieutenant Robert Conroy, ordered Kingsleyto remove the paper. Kingsley once again refused. Conroy then told Kingsleythat officers would remove the paper and that he would be moved to a receiving cell in the interim.
Shortly thereafter, four officers, including respondents, Sergeant StanHendrickson and Deputy Sheriff Fritz Degner, approached the cell and ordered Kingsley to stand, back up to the door, and keep his hands behind him. When Kingsley refused to comply, the officers handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from the cell, carried him to a receiving cell, and placed him face down on a bunk with his hands handcuffed behind his back.
The parties’ views about what happened next differ. The officers testified thatKingsley resisted their efforts to remove his handcuffs. Kingsley testified that he did not resist. All agree that Sergeant Hendrickson placed his knee inKingsley’s back and Kingsley told him in impolite language to get off.Kingsley testified that Hendrickson and Degner then slammed his head into the concrete bunk—an allegation the officers deny.
The parties agree, however, about what happened next: Hendrickson directed Degner to stun Kingsley with a Taser; Degner applied a Taser to Kingsley’s back for approximately five seconds; the officers then left the handcuffedKingsley alone in the receiving cell; and officers returned to the cell 15 minutes later and removed Kingsley’s handcuffs.
Kingsley brought suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 claiming that the officers’ use of force was unreasonable. The trial court instructed the jury that Kingsleywas required to prove that the officers “recklessly disregarded Kingsley’s safety” and “acted with reckless disregard of his rights.” The jury found in the officers’ favor.
On appeal, Kingsley argued that the jury instruction did not adhere to the proper standard for judging a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim, namely, objective unreasonableness. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, holding that the law required a subjective inquiry into the officers’ state of mind, i.e.,whether the officers actually intended to violate, or recklessly disregarded,Kingsley’s rights.


The Court held that under 42 U.S.C. §1983, to prevail on an excessive force claim a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively.
The Court observed that this determination must be made from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, including what the officer knew at the time, and must account for the “legitimate interests stemming from the government’s need to manage the facility in which the individual is detained.” This is done while appropriately deferring to “policies and practices that in th[e] judgment” of jail officials “are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.”
Several considerations lead the Court to this conclusion. An objective standard is consistent with precedent, noting that in prior decisions the Court held that a pretrial detainee could prevail on a claim that his due process rights were violated by providing only objective evidence that the challenged governmental action was not rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective, or that it was excessive in relation to that purpose.
The Court also said that experience suggests that an objective standard is workable, in that it is consistent with the pattern jury instructions used in several Circuits, together with the fact that many facilities train officers to interact with detainees as if the officers’ conduct is subject to objective reasonableness.
Finally, the use of an objective standard adequately protects an officer who acts in good faith, e.g., by acknowledging that judging the reasonableness of the force used from the perspective and with the knowledge of the defendant officer is an appropriate part of the analysis.
The Court provided what may be a helpful “check list” of factors which a Plaintiff must prove in an excessive force claim, stating that:

“Excessive force means force applied recklessly that is unreasonable in light of the facts and circumstances of the time. Thus, to succeed on his claim of excessive use of force, plaintiff must prove each of the following factors by a preponderance of the evidence:

“(1) Defendants used force on plaintiff;

“(2) Defendants’ use of force was unreasonable in light of the facts and circumstances at the time;

“(3) Defendants knew that using force presented a risk of harm to plaintiff, but they recklessly disregarded plaintiff’s safety by failing to take reasonable measures to minimize the risk of harm to plaintiff; and

“(4) Defendants’ conduct caused some harm to plaintiff.

“In deciding whether one or more defendants used ‘unreasonable’ force against plaintiff, you must consider whether it was unreasonable from the perspective of a reasonable officer facing the same circumstances that defendants faced. You must make this decision based on what defendants knew at the time of the incident, not based on what you know now.
“Also, in deciding whether one or more defendants used unreasonable force and acted with reckless disregard of plaintiff ’s rights, you may consider factors such as:

“- The need to use force;

“- The relationship between the need to use force and the amount of force used;

“- The extent of plaintiff’s injury;

“- Whether defendants reasonably believed there was a threat to the safety of staff or prisoners; and

“- Any efforts made by defendants to limit the amount of force used.” App. 277-278 (Emphasis added).
In reaching its decision, the Court contrasted claims of Eighth Amendment violations by post-conviction prisoners alleging cruel and unusual punishment, with those brought, as here, by pretrial detainees claiming a due process violation.
The Court noted that the language of the two Clauses (Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment and Fourteenth Amendment due process) differs, and the nature of the claims often differs.  And, most importantly, pretrial detainees (unlike convicted prisoners) cannot be punished at all, much less “maliciously and sadistically.”  Thus, said the Court, there is no need here, as there might be in an Eighth Amendment case, to determine when punishment is unconstitutional. Prior Eighth Amendment cases are relevant only insofar as they address the practical importance of taking into account the legitimate safety-related concerns of those who run jails; an issue the Court felt it took into proper account here.
The Court found that the jury instruction given at trial was erroneous in that reckless disregard for Kingsley’s safety was added as an element to be proven by Kingsley over and above the need to find that the officers’ use of force was unreasonable in light of the facts and circumstances at the time.
The Court remanded the matter back to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for determination as to whether the erroneous jury instruction was harmless error.


It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not find that these officers’ use of force was unlawful. The Court only found the challenged jury instruction to have been in error, and remanded the case back to the Circuit Court of Appeals for determination by that lower court of whether the error in instructing the jury was harmless, and thus warrants no further proceedings, or so prejudiced Kingsley as to require another trial. Secondly, the decision does not establish a different set of “rules” for uses of force on pretrial detainees versus post-conviction inmates. The contrast between the two types of prisoners goes to the legal analysis of the two types of claims that these different classes of prisoners might bring, i.e., Eighth Amendment claims of cruel and unusual punishment, which can only be brought by post-conviction inmates; and, Fourteenth Amendment claims of excessive force brought by this particular pretrial detainee.
The Eighth Amendment claim may involve inquiry into the subjective intent to act maliciously to punish a prisoner. The Fourteenth Amendment claim of a pretrial detainee focuses on the objective reasonableness of the force, looking to subjective state of mind only insofar as to address the practical importance of legitimate safety-related concerns of those who run jails.
As always, if you would like to discuss the ruling in Kingsley v. Hendricksonfurther, please do not hesitate to contact either Paul R. Coble or, after July 10, 2015, Martin J. Mayer at (714) 446-1400 or, respectively, at prc@jones-mayer.com or mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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