Use of Force in Corrections Facilities
By: Joe Hegedus, Attorney
The legal standard applied to evaluate uses of force by law enforcement employees, including those employed in a jail or correctional facility, varies pursuant to the status of the subject in the legal system.
This standard is a sliding scale that varies as the suspect progresses through the phases starting with an encounter prior to an arrest and ending with the post-conviction phase. The standard applied is most protective of a suspect prior to arrest and least protective of an inmate who is incarcerated in the post-conviction stage.
The legal standard applied by the Courts to evaluate a claim of excessive force brought by a person who was suspected of a crime, but, had not yet been placed in custody, is based on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. More specifically, it typically contains an allegation that the use of force is tantamount to an unreasonable seizure of a person in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
This type of claim, which most often arises during an investigatory stop or detention, is evaluated under the standard set forth by the United States Supreme Court in the seminal case of Graham v. Connor.
The standard set forth in Graham requires the Court to judge the lawfulness of the actions of the officer on the scene from the perspective of a reasonable officer, without consideration of “20/20 hindsight.”
In other words, the Court must evaluate the reasonableness of the officer’s actions by allowing for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.
The reasonableness inquiry is an objective one, meaning that the officer’s actions are judged, without respect to their underlying intent or motivation.
This assessment of the officer’s objective reasonableness takes into consideration a fact-specific inquiry, based on the totality of the circumstances, which may include an evaluation of the following factors:
- The severity of the crime at issue;
- Whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and
- Whether the suspect is actually resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
The second relevant legal standard, evaluating uses of force, applies in the situation where a suspect is post-arrest, but, prior to conviction.
This standard, which arises from the Fourteenth Amendment and usually alleges that the use of force amounts to a violation of the subject’s substantive due process rights, also relies on the objective reasonableness of the officer.
Further, this standard also considers the perspective of the reasonable officer on the scene, without regard to hindsight, and turns on the facts and circumstances of each particular case.
As this Fourteenth Amendment standard typically applies to allegations of excessive force by a pre-trial detainee, it also requires the Court to account for the legitimate interests that stem from the government’s needs to effectively manage the detention facility. This includes deference to policies and practices that, in the judgment of jail administrators, are necessary to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain the institutional security of the facility. See e.g., Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015).
The last legal standard applied by the Courts in evaluation uses of force, which arises under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, applies solely to persons who are incarcerated after conviction.
This standard is the least protective of the rights of the accuser, and ultimately turns on whether the force that was utilized was in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline in the correctional facility. The use of force will be found to be excessive only where it was applied “maliciously” and/or “sadistically” for the very purpose of causing harm. See Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986).
In considering whether the use of force violates the Eighth Amendment, the Court will often consider factors such as:
- The need for the application of force;
- The relationship between the need for force and the amount of force that was used; and
- The extent of the injury that was inflicted.
The above-factors are typically applied with the understanding that, once again, deference must be given to the necessity that the facility be permitted to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.See also Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1 (1992).
As demonstrated by the foregoing, due to the legal nature of the inquiry, members should always contact the OPBA with questions concerning allegations of excessive use of force.