Posts Tagged ‘Excessive Force’

Beatings & Batson

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

guard beating prisoner

The Supreme Court is back in session, well rested from a three-week vacation. (We don’t remember the last time we took three weeks off. Wonder what that must be like.) They opened the day this morning with two interesting per curiam decisions.

The first, Wilkins v. Gaddy, is about what counts as “excessive force” against a prisoner. There was some confusion among the circuits here.

This was a case coming out of North Carolina. A prisoner named Wilkins asked a prison guard for a grievance form. The guard, Gaddy, lost his temper. Wilkins claims that Gaddy threw him to the ground and beat him up, until another officer came and pulled him off. At the end of the day, though, his only injury was a bruised heel and some lingering pain.

The Fourth Circuit said that didn’t count as “excessive force,” because there wasn’t much injury. The main case on point was Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), which the Fourth Circuit had been interpreting to mean that the prisoner’s injuries had to be more than de minimis. And a bruise on your heel is about as de minimis as it gets.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying that’s not at all what Hudson was saying. Calling the Fourth’s reading of that case “strained,” the Supremes clarified the rule in no uncertain terms: the focus is not on what happened to the prisoner, but on what the corrections officer did.

The issue is not how significant the injuries were, but whether the correction officer’s force was “nontrivial,” and “was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” rather than as part of “a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.”

So, just because a prisoner got hurt, that doesn’t mean he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. People can get hurt for other reasons; that makes sense. What matters is whether he was assaulted, subjected to unjustifiable ill treatment. The extent of injury doesn’t have anything to do with whether his rights were violated in the first place — they merely go to “the damages he may recover.”

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The second case decided today, Thaler v. Haynes, is a Batson case out of Texas.

This was a death penalty case, so the stakes were high. There’d be some pressure on everyone involved to do it right. But the criminal law being what it is, things went weird from the get-go.

When the attorneys questioned potential jurors during (more…)