Supreme Court to clarify excessive force standard

Are victims of excessive force required to prove the subjective motivations of their assailant? In other words, must the victim prove that the assailant used force with some intent to harm?

For police-citizen encounters, the answer is a well-established “No.” To prove excessive force during a police-citizen encounter, the victim must show the use of force was objectively unreasonable; the subjective intent and motivations of the officer are not relevant.

At the other end of the spectrum is the standard governing convicted inmates. In those cases, the convicted person must show the use of force was applied maliciously or sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm. In these circumstances, a victim of excessive force must show the jailers intended that harm occur.

But what about encounters between a jailer and a pretrial detainee– someone arrested but not yet proven guilty? Does it matter that the person is presumed innocent?

On January 16, 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to resolve that issue in Kingsley v. Hendrickson. You can access the case summary from SCOTUS blog here.

In Kingsley, the 7th Circuit held that pretrial detainees must prove intent to harm in excessive force cases– the standard in six of the eleven circuit courts. The five other circuits, including the Tenth Circuit where Oklahoma is located, generally do not require the victim to establish intent; demonstrating objective unreasonableness is enough.

The obligation to prove intent represents a major hurdle in most excessive force cases because it allows an assailant to expose the jury to his own mental process leading up to the use of force. Because the assailant’s mental thoughts are his own, they are difficult to impeach or cross-examine, which leaves the jury to decide cases on credibility, where law enforcement generally has an advantage over a pretrial detainee.

Although not squarely presented, the case also presents an opportunity for the Court to address what standard applies to arrestees– people arrested who have yet to appear before a judge for a probable cause hearing. Not only are these people presumed innocent, they are still waiting for a judicial officer to pass on the question of whether they are legally detained.

If you have questions about the use of excessive force, police misconduct or police brutality, contact the personal injury lawyers in Tulsa at Bryan and Terrill Law, 918-935-2777.