Kingsley v. Hendrickson

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Kingsley v. Hendrickson.


Does a pretrial detainee need to show that a state actor applied force recklessly and acted with reckless disregard for his or her rights?

Oral argument: 
April 27, 2015

In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether a pretrial detainee’s § 1983 excessive force claim requires a showing that the force used by the state actor was objectively unreasonable and that the use of force was deliberate. Petitioner, Michael Kingsley, argues that an excessive force claim brought by a pretrial detainee requires only a showing that the force used was objectively unreasonable. Respondents, represented by Stan Hendrickson, argue that an excessive force claim brought by a pretrial detainee requires a showing of the state actor’s subjective intent to be reckless or deliberate. The Court’s decision will impact the means by which pretrial detainees bring excessive-force claims and the policies that govern prisons.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the requirements of a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force claim are satisfied per se by a showing that the state actor deliberately used force against the pretrial detainee and the use of force was objectively unreasonable.


On May 20, 2010, a deputy performing a cell check ordered Michael Kingsley, a pretrial detainee at Monroe County Jail, to take down a piece of paper covering the light above his cell bed. Kingsley refused to do so. When the deputy returned later in the evening for another cell check, the paper had not been removed. The deputy, warning possible disciplinary action, again ordered Kingsley to remove the paper. Kingsley refused, stating that he did not place the paper there. Thereafter, the deputy reported the incident to Sergeant Hendrickson and issued Kingsley a “minor violation.” Hendrickson notified Deputy Karl Blanton that Kingsley was to discard the paper in the morning.

After Kingsley refused to remove the paper several times, Lieutenant Robert Conroy, the jail administrator, ordered the jail staff to take down the paper and transfer Kingsley to another cell. During the transfer, officers pulled Kingsley to his feet because he would not follow orders to stand, resulting in Kingsley smacking his feet on the bedframe, which he claims caused “pain so severe that he could not stand or walk.” The offers claimed that one in the new cell, Kingsley resisted their efforts to remove his handcuffs, so Hendrickson put his knee in Kingsley’s back. Kingsley yelled at Hendrickson to get off and claims that the officers smashed his head into the concrete bunk. Following a verbal exchange, Deputy Degner tased Kingsley in the back.

In December 2010, Kingsley brought an action pro se in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. Kingsley alleged that the officers violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Kingsley further made an excessive force claim against Hendrickson and Degner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”). Both parties moved for summary judgment. At trial, the officers were granted summary judgment on all issues except the excessive force allegation.

At trial, the jury found Hendrickson and Degner not guilty. Kingsley appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (“Seventh Circuit”). Kingsley claimed that the jury was wrongly instructed on the standards for judging excessive force and intent in the pretrial detainee context. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, stating, “the instructions were not an erroneous or confusing statement of the law of this circuit and . . . Mr. Kingsley affirmatively acquiesced to the instruction dealing with harm.”

Kingsley appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether an excessive force claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 brought by a pretrial detainee requires a showing of the state actor’s subjective intent in addition to the objective unreasonableness of the force.


In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether a pretrial detainee’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) excessive force claim requires a showing by the plaintiff that a state actor recklessly or deliberately used unreasonable force. Kingsley argues that the officer in the jail (the state actor), by using a taser, (1) applied objectively unreasonable force which (2) violated Kinglsey constitutional rights—creating a private claim against the state under § 1983. Hendrickson counters that the application of the taser was acceptable (not objectively unreasonable) and that plaintiffs must prove that the state actor’s intent was subjectively reckless or deliberate to recover under § 1983.


Kingsley argues that any action by a state actor that is taken before trial and imposes a punishment violates a detainee’s procedural due process rights. Kingsley argues that because pretrial detainees are not yet convicted of a crime, previous cases have held that pretrial conditions cannot amount to a punishment. Thus, Kingsley asserts that detainees held in captivity are also protected from all arbitrary activity of the state. Furthermore, Kingsley contends that objectively unreasonable harm is sufficient to establish a § 1983 claim when the act is intentional. According to Kingsley, an intentional act by a state actor manifests the state’s “intent to punish” before adjudication, which violate a pretrial detainee’s due process rights. Kingsley states that a finding that an action by a state actor was non-arbitrary hinges on the state legitimacy test, where state action must be objectively connected to a legitimate purpose. Without a rational purpose for the state act here, given that Kingsley was unarmed and did not need to be punished, Kinglsey asserts that the state action was arbitrary and unlawful.

Hendrickson counters that restraints are allowed for pretrial detainees, state actors can exert force to control detainees, and courts should give deference to state actors who determine what amount of force is necessary. Thus, Hendrickson argues that subjective recklessness of state actors must be considered to prove a violation of procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Hendrickson argues that if detainees can use the private right of action under § 1983 for a broad number of claims, this would give rise to more litigation and limit officer control of detainees. Hendrickson asserts that pretrial detainees must show that there is a subjective intent of recklessness on the part of a state actor. Hendrickson explains that this is because incarceration increases the contact that individuals will have with prison officials and prison officials clash with inmates on a regular basis—and sometimes force is necessary. Hendrickson argues that the state action here was legitimate because it was connected to the purpose of controlling a detainee who had refused to obey an officer. Thus, Hendrickson argues that the state action did not violate due process, because the detainee did not show subjective recklessness of the state actor—a requirement under Fourteenth Amendment excessive force claims in order to establish a valid § 1983 claim.


Although Kinsley maintains that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated, he also Kingsley argues that Fourth Amendment protection against the unreasonable use of force exists during a detainee’s arrest and through pretrial detention. Here, Kingsley asserts that the guards’ use of force represents a new seizure that should be considered under the reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment. Kingsley argues that the Fourth Amendment protects the detainee here even after arrest, and thus, the less explicit protection afforded under substantive due process in the Fourteenth Amendment should not be the applicable standard here (although Kingsley still maintains that even under the Fourteenth Amendment standard, he suffered a constitutional violation, as noted above). While Kingsley concedes that not all detentions implicate Fourth Amendment protection, Kingsley argues that any time the state applies physical force against a detainee, the action must be reasonable in order to satisfy the detainee’s constitutional rights. Additionally, Kingsley argues that the Fourth Amendment’s constitutional protection against unreasonable seizures must apply given that state actors can arrest individual citizens without a warrant so long as they have probable cause. Lastly, Kingsley asserts that applying the Fourth Amendment to all seizures will limit the need to consider whether state action violated a detainee’s substantive due process rights because the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness test provides sufficient safe guards for constitutional protection of detainees.

In opposition, Hendrickson contends that although pretrial detainees have rights through due process protection, the Fourth Amendment protection should not exist here. Hendrickson argues that both substantive due process rights and procedural due process rights are implicated after arrest; however, Hendrickson asserts that after the detainee’s arrest there is no seizure by a state actor and therefore no Fourth Amendment right to protection from an unreasonable seizure. Therefore, according to Hendrickson, the state actor only needs to show that the use of force was not subjectively reckless to prove that the action did not violate the detainee’s substantive due process rights. Hendrickson also asserts that the substantive due process clause establishes constitutionally sufficient protection for detainees. Hendrickson explains that this is because it requires the government to have a legitimate reason for infringing on the detainees rights, and the government must act fairly. Lastly, Hendrickson maintains that extending broad protections to detainees who are already protected would limit the state’s control of detainees and would undermine the deference that courts should give to prison administrator’s judgment. Additionally, Hendrickson argues that because probable cause or a warrant has already satisfied Fourth Amendment standards for the detainee’s arrest before trial, imposing strict limitations on state action are unnecessary after arrest.


This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to determine whether an excessive force claim pursuant to § 1983 brought by a pretrial detainee requires a showing of the state actor’s subjective intent in addition to the objective unreasonableness of the force. Kingsley urges the Supreme Court to overturn the Seventh Circuit’s decision, arguing that the jury instruction incorrectly required him to prove the guards’ subjective intent, because all that he was required to show was that the guards were objectively unreasonable. On the other hand, Hendrickson and Degner (collectively, “Hendrickson”) argue that a pretrial detainee must demonstrate that there was a subjective intent to inflict harm that was reckless or deliberate. The Court’s decision may determine the constitutional standard used to evaluate a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim. This decision will affect not only the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees, but also the operation of correctional facilities.


In support of Kingsley, the Former Corrections Administrators and Experts (“FCAE”) argue that an objective standard comports with the current framework that correctional facilities use when training prison guards. FCAE worries that a subjective standard will impair the operations of many correctional institutions because it is contrary to the objective standard jails use to determine when and what amount of force used by a prison official is necessary. The FCAE asserts that a subjective standard will result in a correctional system that lacks consistency when disciplining jailers and will “compromise correctional institutions’ ability to supervise staff effectively.”

Hendrickson responds that a subjective standard will promote the efficient operation of correctional institutions.Hendrickson worries that an objective standard will result in an unnecessary increase in the number of excessive force claims. Hendrickson explains that a subjective standard is more suitable for litigating excessive force claims because it “strikes the proper balance between protecting the constitutional rights of prisoners and shielding corrections officials from costly and time-consuming litigation.”


In support of Kingsley, the Rutherford Institute argues that constitutional law necessitates the use of an objective standard when examining a pretrial detainee’s claim of excessive force. The Rutherford Institute fears that because a pretrial detainee is not afforded the same constitutional protections afforded the accused—“they have not been judged by a jury of their peers, they have not faced their accuser, they have not yet been able to see the government’s evidence against them, they have not yet had their day in court”—a subjective standard would “unduly limit[]” a pretrial detainee’s “opportunity for justice.” In support of Kingsley, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) argues that the Constitution prohibits a government agent’s use of objectively unreasonable force against a pretrial detainee. The ACLU argues that a jailhouse’s culture of excessive violence distorts a jailer’s “subjective sense of reasonableness.” The ACLU worries that due to this distorted sense of reasonableness, a subjective standard will be an unsuitable measure to examine pretrial detainee excessive force claims.

Hendrickson counters that the Supreme Court has adopted a subjective standard for claims of unconstitutionally excessive force. Hendrickson states that in Hudson v. McMillian and Whitley v. Albers, the Court acknowledged that the use of force by prison officials is needed to maintain order. Hendrickson notes that the Court has stated that prison officials should be granted deference when making decisions in the “heat of the moment.” Hendrickson worries that an objective standard eliminates the deference granted to prison officials in “heat of the moment.” Hendrickson also worries that judges and juries are not privy to “the unique aspects of prison life” and are therefore ill-equipped to determine if force used by prison officials in the “heat of the moment” was excessive. Moreover, the National Sheriffs’ Association (“NSA”) along with other amici state that there should be no distinction between a pretrial detainee and a convicted inmate. The NSA contends that it would be unrealistic to adopt an objective standard that requires prison officials to adjust their use of force based on the status of a prisoner.


The Supreme Court will consider whether establishing the subjective intent of recklessness on the part of a state actor is required to prove a pre-trial detainee’s private claim of excessive force under § 1983. Kingsley argues that in order to prove excessive force, a pretrial detainee only needs to show that the force exerted was unreasonable. Hendrickson counters that pretrial detainees must show that the guard who exerted force had a subjective intent to punish or that the guard was subjectively reckless. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely hinge on weighing conflicting goals of protecting the rights of detainees that have not yet been convicted of any crime and providing the state sufficient latitude to control its detainees before trial without giving rise to meritless claims against the state.

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