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A U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Strengthens Rights of Pretrial Detainees


Prisoners awaiting trial around the world are often exposed to the risk of violence—including from interrogators seeking to force a confession; from guards seeking to enforce discipline; or from potentially aggressive fellow prisoners. So last month’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Kingsley v. Hendrickson [PDF], dealing with the use of excessive force towards pretrial detainees, merits attention. The ruling reinforces the principle that the authorities must protect prisoners in pretrial detention—who are of course innocent of any crime until proven guilty in court.

The case in question involved a civil rights complaint from Michael Kingsley, who was arrested in April 2010 on a drug-related charge and kept in jail awaiting trial in the state of Wisconsin. One evening in May, during a routine cell check, he was told to remove a piece of paper that was covering and dimming the light over his bed, a common practice among inmates. Kingsley refused to do so.

The next day, after Kingsley again refused to take the paper down, several officers came to move him to another cell, carrying him out of the cell by his arms, restrained by handcuffs. At this point of recalling the main events the major discrepancy starts between what the plaintiff, Kingsley, claims happened versus the defendants, the prison staff. Kingsley said that, while already in the new cell, they “smashed his head into a concrete bunk,” which the staff denies. Afterwards he claimed a stun gun was used on his back for five seconds, while he was handcuffed, and then he was left alone in the cell, still handcuffed for 15 minutes, after which he finally was unhandcuffed.

At the heart of the case is what Stephen Wermiel, a professor of constitutional law at American University, has called on the “deep split among the federal appeals courts over whether a pretrial detainee may demonstrate unconstitutional excessive force by showing conduct that was objectively unreasonable or whether evidence of a subjective intent to harm the detainee is also required.”

All convicted prisoners are protected by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids excessive or cruel punishments. Additionally, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that force is only illegal if it reflects a subjective “deliberate indifference” on the part of officers.

However, since Michael Kingsley was a pretrial detainee at the time of the incident, his lawyers also referenced the protections under the Fourteenth Amendment, in addition to the Eighth, when claiming that his rights were violated. They argued that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” detainees must be protected from all “punishment,” and therefore Kingsley’s only duty is to prove that he had been subject to what might objectively be considered the excessive use of force.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided by five votes to four in Kingsley’s favor, elaborating that “individuals awaiting trial are particularly vulnerable to government abuse and should not be forced to prove that their alleged abusers intended to harm them in order to claim their rights were violated.”

Essentially, the Supreme Court’s ruling (analyzed in more detail by Richard M. Re on here) aligns with prevailing international standards. When it comes to obvious ill-treatment, the European Court of Human Rights has held that the use of force, or even excessive force, is permissible only when “absolutely necessary” in order to achieve a purpose. The court has not required a proof of “intent to harm.”

The recently adopted United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners [PDF], known as the Mandela Rules, also clearly and repeatedly state that the prison system shall not aggravate detainee’s suffering unless justifiable, and, finally, that “in no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

That said, having four prison staff treating a detainee in the way that Michael Kingsley was treated over the issue of a screened light bulb does not seem the kind of conduct that would ever be justified by existing international standards.

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  • Geographical area: International