Supreme Court Rules Police Cannot Use Excessive Force Whenever They Want In Pretrial Detention

The Baltimore cops whose abuse of Freddie Gray this past April led to his death are not going to like a Supreme Court ruling issued Monday that said a police officer’s word alone is not enough to decide if excessive force is appropriate when used on individuals in pre-trial detention.

The 5-4 ruling in Kingsley v. Hendrickson said there are “objective” standards to determine what is excessive force and whether it is needed in pre-trial settings. “It is consistent with our precedent,” the opinion written by Stephen Breyer said. “We have said that ‘the Due Process Clause protects a pretrial detainee from the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment.’”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a longtime opponent of excessive punishment, voted with the Court's liberals.

In contrast, the Court’s conservatives said that whatever police do is mostly fine. Their dissent, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, mocked the ruling as a “tender-hearted desire” to give those held after arrest a new way to sue police. Scalia also said just because an officer uses excessive force doesn’t mean they intended to punish that individual.

“It is illogical, however, automatically to infer punitive intent from the fact that a prison guard used more force against a pretrial detainee than was necessary,” Scalia wrote, in a case where the defendant was tasered in his cell. “That could easily have been the result of a misjudgment about the degree of force required to maintain order or protect other inmates, rather than the product of an intent to punish the detainee for his charged crime (or for any other behavior).”

The Court’s majority rejected Scalia’s argument that whatever police guards do is justifiable. Breyer wrote there are “objective” standards that can determine when force is excessive, even in the chaotic environment of jails and prisons.

Putting the question into legal frames, Breyer asked who should be believed: the police officer subjectively applying the force or an “objective” standard that assesses whether its application is excessive.

“In deciding whether the force deliberately used is, constitutionally speaking, 'excessive,' should courts use an objective standard only, or instead a subjective standard that takes into account a defendant’s [guard's] state of mind?” he wrote. “We hold that courts must use an objective standard.”

Breyer wrote there are many ways to know what is excessive force. If you apply these conditions to what’s known about the “rough ride” given Freddie Gray in Baltimore—he was thrown into a van and emerged with severe spinal injuries that killed him—it’s clear that this ruling draws a line against punishing those under arrest before they are accused or convicted of any offense.

“Considerations such as the following may bear on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the force used,” Breyer wrote. “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.”

The Court then ordered a lower federal court to rehear the Wisconsin case that resulted in this ruling. The decision angered the Court’s right-wingers, who wrote that the majority was mistaken and the ruling would lead to an outbreak of prisoners suing police.

“Today’s majority overlooks this in its tender-hearted desire to tortify the Fourteenth Amendment,” Scalia wrote.

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