Excessive Force Case: Kingsley v. Hendrickson

The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted cert to an excessive force case out of the Seventh Circuit: Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 744 F.3d 443 (7th Cir. 2014), No. 14-6368, 2015.  The issue is whether an objective or subjective standard of reasonableness applies in an excessive force case.

In 2010, Michael Kingsley was a pretrial detainee at Monroe County Jail in Sparta, Wisconsin.  A deputy noticed a piece of yellow legal paper affixed to the light above Mr. Kingsley’s bed.  Kingsley told the deputy that he did not put the paper on the light and refused to remove the paper.  The officers entered the cell and dragged Kingsley off his bed. In the process, Kingsley’s feet hit the bedframe, causing him severe pain.  After Kingsley was placed in a different cell, the deputy tased Kingsley in the back.

Kingsley brought an action pro se in district court, alleging violations of his civil rights, including a claim of excessive force.  The jury in the federal district court found the defendants not guilty.  Kingsley appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  He claimed that the jury received instructions that included the wrong standard when they were instructed to consider the defendants’ subjective intent to cause harm.  Kingsley argued that the jury should be instructed to find guilt if the force used by officers was objectively unreasonable.  The jury instruction included this language: “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.”

As a pretrial detainee, Kingsley’s rights are protected under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  Pretrial detainees have the right to be free from punishment before there is an adjudication of guilt.  Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).  Under the Due Process Clause, abusive conduct rising to the level of recklessness is prohibited.  Proving recklessness requires looking at the actor’s intent.  By contrast, the Fourth Amendment looks at whether abusive government conduct was “objectively reasonable.”  In other words, intent does not come into play.

The Seventh Circuit majority opinion states that: “Our cases make clear that, although we employ the objective criteria of the Fourth Amendment as a touchstone by which to measure the gravity of the defendant officer’s conduct, we also recognize, quite clearly, the need for a subjective inquiry into the defendant’s state of mind in performing the activity under scrutiny.”  The majority went on to explain that, in cases where the facts showed that the actor’s force was unreasonable, intent was less important.  Contrarily, if the actions were ambiguous, intent must be relied on more.  Relying on this explanation for inconsistent case law, the court disagreed with Kingsley’s plea for the objective standard in determining whether the officers acted with excessive force.  The Seventh Circuit ruled 2-1 that the jury instruction “required a level of intent at least equivalent to recklessness.”

Judge Hamilton, troubled by the majority’s analysis, issued a dissenting opinion, focusing on the peculiar situation of someone pretrial–that is, someone who is not free but has not been found guilty.  As Judge Hamilton notes, the Supreme Court has yet to delineate the excessive force standard for a pretrial detainee.  He also notes that conflicting cases heard by the Seventh Circuit do point in the direction of something that looks more like the objective standard under the Fourth Amendment.  Much of the wisdom gathered from the Seventh Circuit’s case history, asserts Hamilton, is that while a pretrial detainee might look very much like a prisoner (e.g., he is housed among prisoners)—he is not a prisoner because he has not been convicted.  Thus, his constitutional rights are not the same as those of a convicted person.  Judge Hamilton also points to cases like Titran v. Ackman, where the Seventh Circuit explicitly rejected the subjective standard. 893 F.2d 145 (7th Cir. 1990).  Therefore, Hamilton blasts the inclusion of the concept of “recklessness” in the jury instruction.  He writes:  “Put another way, how and why would it be constitutional for an officer to use force against a pretrial detainee that was ‘unreasonable in light of the facts and circumstances of the time,’ since this instruction invites that very possibility?”  He further queries: “How and why would objectively unreasonable force be deemed anything other than ‘punishment’ that would be imposed on the detainee without due process of law?”  Finally, Judge Hamilton concludes that so long as the pretrial detainee can prove that the force used by the officer was objectively unreasonable, that should be sufficient.

On January 16, 2015, the Supreme Court granted cert to resolve this matter.  The Court’s decision will not only decide Kingsley’s fate, but will have a lasting effect on the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees—citizens who are not free but are certainly not guilty.


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