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Change to the Standard for Evaluating Excessive Force Claims … More to Come?

Overshadowed by more politicized decisions issued in the last session, the United States Supreme Court also issued an opinion affecting excessive force cases. The decision, Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S.Ct. 2466 (2015), dealt with the legal standard for evaluating excessive force claims in the context of pre-trial detention. In a 5-4 decision, the Court decided that claims by pre-trial detainees are no longer subject to the same subjective standard applied to Eighth Amendment excessive force claims filed by prisoners. Instead, excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees –under the Fourteenth Amendment – should be evaluated under an objective evidence standard. Specifically, objective unreasonableness is now sufficient to establish an excessive force claim by a pretrial detainee.

In so holding, the Court stated that the appropriate analysis should focus on “the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, including what the officer knew at the time, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight” and must also take full consideration of the jail’s need for “internal order and discipline.” The Court went on to provide a non-exhaustive list of factors that courts should consider, including: “the relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used; the extent of the plaintiff’s injury; any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force; the severity of the security problem at issue; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting.” These appear to be somewhat subjective elements of the purported objective standard.

In justifying its opinion, the Court reaffirmed that the Fourteenth Amendment protects pretrial detainees from the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment and explained that, “in the absence of an expressed intent to punish, a pretrial detainee can nevertheless prevail by showing that the actions are not ‘rationally related to a legitimate non-punitive governmental purpose’ or that the actions ‘appear excessive in relation to that purpose.’”

This decision is important and could change the overall landscape of Fourteenth Amendment excessive force claims, and many district court’s have directed supplemental briefing on pending claims in light of Kingsley. Nonetheless, a review of the decisions from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals shows that, in general, although the courts invoke a subjective standard, reasoning as applied appears to consider whether the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable. As such, the mechanics of the analysis long applied suggests there will likely not be a major change in how courts evaluate these claims.

Instead, the bigger impact of this decision could be the extension of the reasoning to post conviction excessive force cases under the Eighth Amendment. In fact, the Court acknowledged “our view that an objective standard is appropriate in the context of excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment may raise questions about the use of a subjective standard in the context of excessive force claims brought by convicted prisoners.” The Court declined to address that issue, but the proverbial door is left wide open to revisit the standard applied in Eighth Amendment excessive force cases. On the other hand, courts have long emphasized a real difference between the constitutional standards to be applied to arrestees/detainees as opposed convicted prisoners.

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