Excessive Force and De Minimis Injuries

It was a busy week at the U.S. Supreme Court. Among other things, the Justices issued the two Miranda opinions Jeff wrote about yesterday and heard oral argument in two cases considering whether federal sex offender laws violate the Ex Post Facto Clause (Carr v. United States and United States v. Marcus).  A summary disposition issued on Monday also caught my attention, not because I think it’s a blockbuster, but rather because it involved an inmate in a North Carolina state prison. The case is Wilkins v. Gaddy.

Inmate Jamey Wilkins filed a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that corrections officer Gaddy used excessive force when he “snatched [Wilkins] off the ground and slammed him onto the concrete floor” after Wilkins had asked for a grievance form. Wilkins’ pro se complaint went on to say that Gaddy punched, kicked, kneed, and choked him, and that he suffered bruises, back pain, and migraine headaches as a result of the assault.

A federal district judge dismissed Wilkins’ complaint for failure to state a claim. The district judge ruled that under Fourth Circuit precedent “a plaintiff must establish that he received more than a de minimus [sic] injury” to succeed on an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim. Though Wilkins said he required X rays and medication for back pain and depression after the incident, the district court indicated that some of Wilkins’ issues were pre-existing conditions. The rest, like bruising, were de minimis, and therefore not actionable. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying the Fourth Circuit strayed from the Court’s clear holding in Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), by requiring a showing of significant injury to state an excessive force claim. In Hudson the Court said excessive force claims should be decided based on the nature of the force, not the extent of the injury. The key inquiry is “whether the force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” As the Court summed up in Wilkins, “[a]n inmate . . . does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury.”

The Court’s per curiam reversal was unanimous, although Justice Thomas wrote a concurrence to express his continued belief that Hudson itself was wrongly decided. As he has in prior excessive force cases, Justice Thomas wrote that the Eighth Amendment’s reference to “punishment” does not include prison conditions; as commonly understood at the time of the amendment’s ratification, “punishment” referred only to the actual sentence for the crime. To hold otherwise, he argues, turns the Eighth Amendment into a “National Code of Prison Regulations.”

The bottom line for corrections officers is that they should not use force maliciously and sadistically. Not every “push or shove” gives rise to a federal case, but officers should not assume they can avoid liability just because an inmate isn’t hurt badly.

On remand, it’s possible that additional facts will emerge about what happened between Wilkins and Officer Gaddy on the day in question. The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion didn’t mention it, but Wilkins was, at the time of the incident, about 7 years into a 1712-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury. The 133 infractions on his DOC disciplinary record indicate he hasn’t exactly been a model inmate. Many of the infractions involve assault on guards, sometimes with weapons, and he was convicted in 2009 of two counts of malicious conduct by a prisoner for acts that took place about 5 months before the incident. Wilkins’ prior misbehavior certainly doesn’t excuse malicious acts by guards (and I don’t have any information about their history), but his disciplinary record might inform the analysis of whether the force Officer Gaddy allegedly used could plausibly have been thought necessary to maintain or restore discipline. Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986).

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