Kingsley v. Hendrickson: Excessive Force is in the Eye of the Objective Beholder

The Supreme Court of the United States, in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, waded into the metaphysical discussion of what plaintiffs must prove about corrections officers’ state of mind in a lawsuit alleging the officers used excessive force against an inmate.  In the process, the High Court made it incrementally easier for plaintiffs to prove an excessive force case made pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

In this case, corrections officers ordered Inmate Kingsley (in custody on a drug charge), to remove a piece of paper from the light fixture in his cell.  Kingsley refused repeated orders so the officers handcuffed him and removed him from his cell.  They took him to a different cell and put him on a concrete bunk.  The parties differed on whether Kingsley fought officers who were trying to remove the handcuffs.  All agreed, though, that officers then used a taser on Kingsley for approximately five seconds, left him for fifteen minutes, and returned to un-cuff him.

On these facts, the inmate sued corrections officers for unconstitutionally using excessive force.  The officers prevailed at trial and Kingsley appealed.  His challenge included a claim that the jury instruction in his case, requiring him to prove the officers acted recklessly, set the bar too high.

Excessive Force Requires Proof that a Reasonable Officer Would Have Known the Force was Excessive.

There was no dispute that the officers intended to cuff and tase Kingsley.  Rather, the question the majority considered is whether Kingsley was required to prove that the officers objectively understood those actions to be excessive or if the plaintiff was required to show that the individual officers subjectively understood their actions to be excessive.

The Court, in a 5-4 ruling (Justice Breyer wrote for the majority joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan), ruled that plaintiffs need only show that a reasonable officer would have understood the force to be excessive.  The Court noted that objective standards are easier to apply than subjective standards, and that a subjective standard would not advance the purpose of § 1983 claims.

Moreover, an objectively reasonable standard will still protect officers who act in good faith from frivolous lawsuits.  The reasonableness of officers’ conduct will still be assessed from the perspective of a reasonable officer acting at the time and place and under the circumstances that attended the incident in question.  The Court reiterated, sympathetically, its long-standing observations that officers facing disturbances have to make split-second judgments and that “‘[r]unning a prison is an inordinately difficult undertaking.'”  The Court signaled no retreat from the deference those acknowledgements require.

Plaintiffs Need Not Prove Officers Acted Maliciously or Sadistically

The Court, however, rejected a requirement that plaintiffs prove defendant officers acted without good faith but rather intending “‘maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'”  Justice Breyer looked to the Court’s precedent in concluding that reasonableness was the lodestar by which police conduct in § 1983 cases gauged.

In light of this objective requirement, the Court found the jury instruction in the case, which required a finding of “reckless” application of force for plaintiff to prevail, was error.  The Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings which, in light of the error in jury instruction, will require both a harmless error analysis by the Court of Appeals and consideration of the need for a new trial.

Dissent Complains Majority Standard is Too “Tender-Hearted” and “Tortifies” the Constitution.

In dissent, Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires more than “‘objectively unreasonable force'” to make out a claim for excessive force.  Such a claim is predicated not so much on the application of force as it is on conduct “‘imposed for the purpose of punishment'” or a “‘deliberate act intended to chastise or deter.'”  In short, in the absence of subjective proof that the officers intended to punish Kingsley, merely using objectively unreasonable force does not make out a claim for a Constitutional violation.

The dissent noted that federal Constitutional law is not the only form of redress available to citizens who believe they have been wronged by state actors and observed that Kingsley had sued the officers in his case for a state law claim of assault and battery.  Justice Scalia urged that the Constitution not be considered a “‘font of tort law'” to be super-imposed on the state system.  He concluded that the majority had over-looked that admonition “in its tender-hearted desire to tortify the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Justice Alito, dissenting for only himself, would have dismissed the case as improvidently granted.  He is of the view that a pre-trial detainee’s right to make a claim for excessive force against a detention facility employee is, as yet, undecided.  The Court ought to have decided that question before deciding what state of mind must be proven to make out such a claim.


Kingsley is important for at least three reasons.

First, it has the tendency to further extend the reach of “reasonableness” as the governing principle in police and public safety cases.  That’s good news for defendants who act objectively reasonably, good news for training officers in broad principles, and good news for officers who act in good faith.  It’s bad news for defendants who lose at least one arrow in the defense quiver: the ability to defend objectively unreasonable conduct that was, nevertheless, not subjectively intended to be cruel.

Second, to the extent the Court’s excessive force precedent had focused on unlawful punishment as the touchstone of its analysis, Kingsley is a measured step back from that test.  Whether force is excessive is to be judged under the circumstances of the case and not whether the force amounts to an impermissible intent to punish.

Third, at least eight members of the Court had little difficulty concluding that even inmates who are pre-trial detainees have a right to be free from excessive force from corrections officials.  Justice Alito’s assertion that that right was as yet unannounced got no traction with the rest of the Court.