After Freddie Gray

The Kingsley decision creates a crucial new constitutional protection against police abuse.

Slate, By Mark Joseph Stern, June 22

In April of 2010, five police officers put Michael Kingsley face down on a cement bunk in a holding cell, shocked him with a stun gun for five seconds, then left him alone, writhing in pain with his hands cuffed behind his back, for 15 minutes. Kingsley sued the officers, claiming they violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force. He lost.

On Monday, the Supreme Court gave Kingsley a second chance, ruling that the trial court gave the jury bad instructions. In a narrow sense, the decision turns on a technical question of intent. In a broader sense, though, the ruling is a blast of good news for opponents of police brutality—an emphatic declaration that the Constitution bars police from beating and abusing suspects in custody.

At the heart of Kingsley v. Hendrickson is a pretty straightforward question of intent. During the trial, the judge told the jury that Kingsley must lose unless he could prove the officers knew their actions could unduly harm Kingsley but went through with them anyway. Under that high standard, Kingsley lost. It’s incredibly difficult to prove law enforcement intentionally deprived suspects of their constitutional rights. Just ask the family of Michael Brown.

But Kingsley argued that he shouldn’t have to prove the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable. By forcing him to convince a jury that the officers had a malicious state of mind, Kingsley believed, the court made him clear too high a hurdle to vindicate his constitutional rights. Rather, Kingsley insisted that he should only have to prove that their use of force was objectively unreasonable to win his suit.

A bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Kingsley, sending the case back down to an appeals court to decide whether the error was so grave that Kingsley must be given a new trial. The dry majority opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer barely hints that the decision will have an impact beyond Kingsley’s case. But in reality, Kingsley constructs a crucial new constitutional protection against police abuse—a protection especially vital in the shadow of Freddie Gray’s shocking death.

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