The Supreme Court’s Excessive Force Standard for Detainees

The Supreme Court came down with a 5-4 decision yesterday, Kingsley v. Hendrickson, granting a new trial to Michael Kingsley, a pretrial detainee who alleged that jail guards used excessive force against him in violation of his right to due process. In so ruling, the Court issued a decision with important implications for all pretrial detainees in the United States: The Court held that detainees need not prove the subjective state of mind of prison guards who use force against them; instead, these civil rights plaintiffs need only show that the force used against them was objectively unreasonable.

Pretrial detainees – people in jail awaiting their criminal trial – have a bit of a hybrid status. Once defendants are convicted, they have fewer rights and are protected by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Under the Eighth Amendment, convicted prisoners have a cause of action when the prison guards’ conduct manifests “deliberate indifference.” In contrast, people on the street who have not yet been arrested for an offense have due process rights, and officers’ force used against them must be “objectively reasonable.” Pretrial detainees, however, are not yet convicted, so they have more rights than prisoners, but they are also not free.

Courts around the country had been divided on the constitutional standard for when jailers might be liable for excessive force aimed at pretrial detainees, and the Kingsley case now provides that standard. In its decision, the Court rejected the standard that, to prove an excessive force claim, a pretrial detainee must show that the officers were subjectively aware that their particular use of force was unrea­sonable, thus rejecting that a plaintiff must show the officer had intent to harm or reckless disregard for the detainee’s rights. Instead, the Court held that detainees must prove only that the officers’ use of that force was objectively unreasonable.

Loevy & Loevy attorneys represented former corrections administrators and experts as amici curiae in support of Mr. Kingsley, filing a brief in the Supreme Court that examined use of force guidelines used in jails around the nation. The brief argued that the best way to address the pervasive culture of violence in some prisons is by having objective standards that can be used in the written policies, guard training, oversight, and disciplinary procedures that govern the use of force by correctional staff. The brief outlined how an objective standard for evaluating correctional officers’ use of force against pretrial detainees would reflect the current consensus on best practices and the standards that are currently used by local jails.  The amici also argued that an objective standard would provide the clearest guidance to local corrections facilities, officials, and employees who wish to comply with the Constitution when they must use force to control pretrial detainees. Loevy & Loevy is proud to have represented distinguished prison experts in their successful support of Mr. Kingsley.

This decision will have wide reach for pre-trial detainees around the country, as typically there are more than 450,000 pre-trial detainees on any given day, and complaints about excessive force abound. One logistical issue that will likely arise as a result of this decision, however, is that prisons will now have different excessive force standards for pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates, but those two populations are often housed together in the same facility. Thus, correctional officers making decisions about using force may not know in the moment whether an incarcerated person is a pretrial detainee or a convicted prisoner. One can only hope that post-Kinglsely, this uncertainty prompts prison officials to err on the side of restraint and objectively reasonable behavior.

Loevy & Loevy has a dedicated practice of representing civil rights plaintiffs in excessive force cases (both inside and outside of prison) and in prisoners’ rights cases, with much success. Please feel free to contact us if you have a potential case you would like to discuss.


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