Supreme Court Ruling on Pretrial Detainee's Excessive Force Claim

A criminal defendant was awaiting trial in a county jail when several guards pinned him down and zapped him with a Taser. He filed suit in federal court against the guards, claiming they violated his right (pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment) to be free from excessive force. The Supreme Court heard the case and announced its ruling yesterday.

The issue before the Court had to do with the appropriate standard a jury should use when evaluating whether the force was excessive. The attorney for the guards argued the standard should be subjective: Did the guards actually know they were using excessive force and did they apply the force “maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” The attorney for detainee, on the other hand, argued the standard should be objective: Would a reasonable guard have known (even if these particular guards didn’t know or realize) that the force was excessive?

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the detainee and held that the appropriate standard is objective. The upshot is that a jail guard’s state of mind is not relevant when evaluating his use of force. All that matters—the only thing a jury must consider—is whether a reasonable guard would have recognized that the force was excessive.

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