Excessive Force Claims Under the Fourteenth Amendment

“Excessive force” claims may be litigated pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as follows:  Under the Fourth Amendment for claims arising during arrest; under the Fourteenth Amendment for claims arising during pretrial detention; under the Eighth Amendment for claims arising after conviction.  In 2015, the United States Supreme Court in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015) held that, to prevail on an excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment, a pretrial detainee need only show that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.  That decision resolves the protracted circuit split concerning the standard applied to Fourteenth Amendment excessive force claims.

In reaching that decision, the Supreme Court in Kingsley notably considered the two separate states-of-mind of a defendant in such cases:  The first being with respect to his physical acts; the second being with respect to whether his physical acts (or his use of force) were excessive.  See id. at 2472.  Where, as in Kingsley, the defendant’s use of force was deliberate, the question now turns solely on whether the defendant’s use of that force was objectively unreasonable—i.e., excessive.  See id.   Whether the defendant’s use of force was objectively unreasonable depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case, and that determination must be made from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene which includes what he/she knew at the time of the incident.  See id. at 2743.  A non-exclusive list of considerations bearing on the reasonableness of the force used are:  “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.”  Id. (citation omitted).

What does this mean?  In essence, no longer must a plaintiff prove that the defendant subjectively intended to violate his or her constitutional rights.  So long as the defendant’s use of force was deliberate—i.e., the defendant proceeded purposely or knowingly against the plaintiff in his physical acts—then that defendant is liable for a constitutional violation if it is proved his use of force was objectively unreasonable under the particular facts and circumstances presented to the defendant at that time.