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Prisoner Rights Litigation Series: Excessive Force


Unfortunately, the sad reality of prison life is that, far too often, prison officials believe that once incarcerated, a human being’s constitutional rights are reduced to zero. Case law and U.S. Congressional actions, both allegedly based on policy considerations, can leave one feeling that courts and our Congress have adopted the same attitude.

At HDR, we believe that the constitutional rights of prisoners must be defended and upheld, vigorously, because the tendency for abuse is extremely high (“out of sight, out of mind”) and because of the “special relationship” between prisoners and public officials.

Our public officials have enacted laws that impose an affirmative duty on prison officials for the care and protection of prisoners. Read the Supreme Court’s opinion, DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 202, 109 S. Ct. 998, 1007, 103 L. Ed. 2d 249 (1989), for a better understanding of that special relationship.

Obviously, protecting and caring for prisoners does not equate to beating a prisoner “maliciously and sadistically for the purpose of causing harm.” Read the Supreme Court’s opinion, Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 312–13, 106 S. Ct. 1078, 1080–81, 89 L. Ed. 2d 251 (1986), to learn more about the Supreme Court’s view on the difference between “whether the measure taken inflicted unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering [or] whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the purpose of causing harm.”

With that established, this article addresses some of the complicated issues that arise in excessive force cases brought on behalf of prisoners within state prisons, as well as complicated issues that require the use of experienced attorneys.

How Do Courts Determine Excessive Force?

The Supreme Court has developed the following guiding criteria, which amongst other rational criteria, courts and attorneys use when determining whether or not the force used against a prisoner violated their constitutional rights:

  • Need for the application of force at issue
  • The relationship between that need and the amount of force used
  • The extent of the injury caused

You can read the Supreme Court’s opinion, Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 2, 112 S. Ct. 995, 996, 117 L. Ed. 2d 156 (1992), to help you understand these guiding criteria further, beyond this short article.

Was There a Need to Apply Force Against a Prisoner?

Determining the demonstrable reason force was used against a prisoner will affect the entire case. For example, if a prison guard gave repeated commands to get on the ground, and the prisoner refused to do so, then objectively speaking, there was a need to use some quantum of force to “restore order.” As stated, the prison guard could possibly justify, in that scenario, the need for some quantum of force, but that does not mean the prison guard may use any quantum of force to “restore order”--because the law prohibits prison officials from using an amount of force disproportional to the situation.

To determine the relationship between the need and the amount of force used, attorneys must examine many factors, starting with the type of force at issue. For example, are we talking about basic and controlled take-down techniques, or uncontrolled techniques in which a prison guard intentionally slams the prisoner’s head against the floor, or restraining techniques, such as chokeholds, that cause a prisoner to pass out.

After establishing the type of force used, experienced attorneys apply the law and some common sense to other factors, such as:

  • The size difference between the prisoner and the guard;
  • Whether prior aggressive behavior was known by the guards at the time the force was used
  • The reasons for disobeying the command
  • The mental health of the prisoner known to the officers at the time forced was used
  • While disobeying the “command,’ whether the prisoner was still objectively compliant in other ways, such as hands in the air/behind back/against the wall, and not moving versus actively resisting, such as cussing, swinging arms, or acting belligerent
  • Whether the prisoner was already restrained
  • The alleged violation at issue, because there is a far difference from “restoring order” during a riot versus “restoring order” during a scenario in which a prisoner is simply slow to get out of bed during a headcount.

By no means is the above list complete. No one can anticipate the incalculable number of fact patterns that can turn a case either way. But an experienced attorney will be able to apply a particular fact pattern to the law to provide you with sound advice about your case. Complicating matters more, determining the timing in which a particular use of force caused a particular injury will also bear heavily on your case.

Although not listed above, the timing with respect to when force was used by prison officials, in relation to the injuries suffered by a prisoner, will undoubtedly have a significant effect on the monetary compensation you may obtain for said injuries. All too often a potential client has suffered severe injuries and will tell us “I was handcuffed as they were beating me.”

While that may be true, a more critical review of the facts generally reveals that some of these injuries were caused prior to being handcuffed-- and that the force which caused some (but not all) of those injuries was lawful. The issue is complicated. The claim at issue is “excessive force,” not “zero force” and thus while some injuries may be linked to lawful force, others may not.

Let’s say, for example, that prison officials convince a judge/jury that the initial use of force was legally justified to “restore order,” and during that initial use of force, a prison guard broke the wrist of the prisoner. Then, you may not recover monetary damages for the broken wrist. But, if your attorneys prove that the prison guard’s subsequent use of force was unlawful and that subsequent use of force caused a hematoma, eye-socket damage, and a broken arm, for example, then you may recover compensation for those injuries.

Experienced attorneys like those at HDR attorneys will be able to sparse out injuries caused by lawful force versus those caused by unlawful force, to give you a better understanding of which injuries are most likely compensable.

The Extent of the Injury Sustained by the Prisoner

Prison officials love claiming that no constitutional violation occurred because the actual physical injuries were “de minimis,” i.e., the prisoner did not suffer what would be considered, generally, significant physical injuries. Luckily, the Supreme Court disagrees.

According to the Supreme Court, “the extent of the injury suffered by an inmate is one of the factors to be considered in determining whether the use of force is wanton and unnecessary.” The phrase “one of the factors” does not mean the sole factor: it means one factor--of many factors--to be considered, and the Supreme Court made that clear by further stating, “the absence of serious injury is relevant to, but does not end, the Eighth Amendment inquiry. There is no merit to respondents' assertion that a significant injury requirement is mandated by what this Court termed.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 2, 112 S. Ct. 995, 996, 117 L. Ed. 2d 156 (1992).

With that in mind, attorneys must review, amongst other factors, the prisoner’s injuries from the perspective of whether the use of force in question violates “contemporary standards of decency,” “because such standards are always violated when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm.”

In short, this means that prison officials are not per se insulated from liability with respect to violating the constitutional rights of a prisoner, just because that prisoner is fortunate enough to have withstood, without physical injury, for example, an unlawful pile drive of his head to a cement floor, or an unlawful field-goal-style kick to his groin, or an unlawful baton blow to his head. While a prisoner may luckily escape physical injury resulting from this abhorrent use of excessive force, that type of unlawful force will always be accompanied by emotional pain and suffering, which is--and always should be--compensable.

The above does not come close to the experience and knowledge necessary to litigate these cases successfully. Prison litigation has so many obstacles that being successful in this area demands experienced representation that the skilled lawyers at HDR Law can provide.

If you have more questions about taking legal actions for excessive force, please call (404) 341-4434 today to schedule your consultation with one of our dedicated civil rights attorneys.