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On June 22, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued an important decision for all North Carolina counties operating county jails in which individuals are held detainees awaiting trial. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, No. 14-6368, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled that in excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees, the plaintiff need only show the force used against him was objectively unreasonable, not that the officer subjectively intended to injure him. This case is important because the court had never before articulated what standard applies to the excessive force claims of those individuals charged, but not yet convicted, of crimes. For private citizens not charged or convicted of a crime, the standard is one of objective reasonableness (someone being arrested). For prisoners who have been convicted of a crime, the standard is higher and requires the plaintiff to show the officer subjectively intended to cause the harm. As accused but not convicted individuals, pretrial detainees fall somewhere between these two categories, and the court determined the standard applicable to their excessive force claims should be the lesser showing of objective unreasonableness.

Kingsley involved the claims of Michael Kingsley, an individual who was arrested on a drug charge and detained in a Wisconsin jail. He failed to make bail, so he was housed in the jail waiting for his trial. One day, an officer noticed a piece of paper covering a light fixture in Kingsley’s cell. Kingsley was ordered to remove the paper, but he refused. The officers then handcuffed him and forcibly removed him from the cell. The parties disagreed over what happened next, with Kingsley claiming the officers slammed his head into a concrete bunk and the officers claiming Kingsley resisted their efforts to handcuff him. Everyone agreed, however, that one officer deployed his Taser to stun Kingsley for approximately five seconds. The officers left Kingsley in the cell for fifteen minutes, then returned and removed the handcuffs. Kingsley filed a lawsuit alleging the officers’ use of force was excessive. At trial, the jury found in favor of the officers, but Kingsley appealed, arguing the jury was instructed on an incorrect standard – that of subjective reasonableness.

The Supreme Court agreed. The divided court held a jury must consider whether the force was objectively reasonable, a determination that turns on the “facts and circumstances of each particular case,” taking into account the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The jury should also consider the legitimate interests a jail has in maintaining internal order and discipline. But to find an officer liable for excessive force under the U.S. Constitution, a jury need not find an officer maliciously and sadistically intended to punish or injure the detainee. Rather, the question for a jury in a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim is simply whether the officer’s use of force was objectively reasonable, without considering the officer’s intent. This will likely lower the bar for Plaintiffs bringing 1983 claims because the jury instruction for subjective reasonableness required them to prove the officer acted maliciously and sadistically, which is often very difficult to prove. Jurors should still be instructed that 20/20 hindsight can’t be used to decide this issue, but defendants may now have a harder time presenting these cases to juries.

If you have questions about how the Kingsley decision would affect claims against your county or about claims by pretrial detainees or inmates in general, feel free to contact Nick Ellis or Caroline Mackie, who practice in civil rights defense for Poyner Spruill. You can reach Nick at jnellis@poynerspruill.com; 252.972.7115 or 919-783-2907 and Caroline can be reached at cmackie@poynerspruill.com; 919.783.1108.

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