Supreme Court weighs excessive force against inmates awaiting trial

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Amid a growing national debate over police use of force, the Supreme Court struggled Monday with a related question of claims of excessive force against jail officials by people who are accused but not yet convicted of crimes.

The case involves Michael Kingsley, a Wisconsin man who was in jail pending a trial on drug charges. Kingsley claims that two jail officers used excessive force when they transferred him to another cell after he refused to remove a piece of paper covering the light over his bed.

During the incident, Kingsley's leg banged against his bunk, an officer put his knee on Kingsley's back while he was handcuffed and he was shot with a Taser gun. Kingsley also claims an officer slammed his head against the bunk. The officers claim Kingsley was resisting, while he says he complained that his handcuffs were too tight.

Kingsley sued for civil rights violations, but a jury sided with the jail officers. The jury was instructed that for Kingsley to prove his case, he must show that the jail officers recklessly disregarded his safety. A federal appeals court rejected Kingsley's argument that he only needed to show the actions were unreasonable.

At issue is whether people awaiting trial who sue jail guards over claims of mistreatment must show the use of force was intentional - or at least reckless - as opposed to simply unreasonable.

Kingsley's lawyer, Wendy Ward, told the justices there are "constitutional distinctions between those who have been convicted and those who have not." While convicted prisoners face an additional hurdle of showing that guards intended to cause harm, she argued that it is unfair to apply the higher standard to those still innocent until proven guilty.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said it would be too difficult to ask guards to apply different standards to convicted and non-convicted prisoners mixed together in the same jail. He wondered what would happen if prisoners are misbehaving and there is a lockdown.

"Now the detainee raises his hand and says, 'Oh, excuse me. I'm a detainee. I have a different standing,'" Kennedy said.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the lawyers for the jail guards "make a very persuasive case" that convicted prisoners are less of a threat than pretrial detainees.

"You're going to go to jail if you've got 10 days on a DUI or something like that, but the people who are detained pre-conviction may be multiple murderers," Roberts said.

Justice Elena Kagan wondered about two people indicted for the same offense, where one makes bail but the other doesn't. She asked why they should not be treated the same way if one makes a claim of excessive force that occurs outside the jail while the other has a similar claim in jail.

Paul Clement, arguing for the jail officers, said the reason for the difference is that "incarceration really is a game-changer."

"The need to protect the other inmates from a potentially violent person doesn't have the same kind of direct analog when something's unfolding on the streets," Clement said.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in the case arguing that many pretrial detainees are charged with nonviolent offenses and are in jail only because they can't afford to make bail before trial. The ACLU says it would discourage "guard-on-detainee abuse" to give prison officials less deference for those in jail awaiting trial.

But the National Association of Counties and other groups representing state and local officials say the same standard regarding the use of force should apply to both pre-trial detainees and inmates who have been convicted since they are all in the same jail.

A ruling in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 14-6368, is expected by June.

Published: Wed, Apr 29, 2015