Supreme Court rules on Spider-Man and excessive force in jails

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court put jail guards on notice that they will be held to a higher standard when facing accusations that they physically abused an individual being detained before a trial.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A news assistant (C) runs to his co-workers with printed copies of US Supreme Court decisions Monday. Over the next week, the court will release its decisions on some of the most-watched cases of the term, including rulings on gay marriage, the death penalty, and the Affordable Care Act.

The US Supreme Court has made it somewhat easier for a person being held in jail in pretrial detention to prove that he was subjected to excessive force by his jailors.

In a 5-to-4 decision on Monday, the high court effectively put jail guards and others on notice that they will be held to a higher standard when facing accusations that they physically abused an individual being detained in jail before a trial.

The decision comes in the case of a detainee at a Wisconsin county jail who had a stun gun deployed into his back while lying face-down on a concrete bunk with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Michael Kingsley was arrested in May 2010 on a drug charge. At one point during his detention a guard asked Mr. Kingsley to remove a piece of paper covering the light fixture in his cell. Kingsley refused. Other officers made the same request. He repeatedly refused.

The next day four officers handcuffed Kingsley, removed him from his cell, and placed him in a different cell where the stun gun was deployed.

Kingsley sued two of the officers, charging they used excessive force against him. The case went to trial and the jury sided with the officers.

On appeal, Kingsley’s lawyer argued that the judge gave the wrong instruction to the jury. The trial judge told the jury to consider the accused officers’ state of mind at the time of the stun gun use.

Kingsley’s lawyer said that the jury should have used an objective standard, more favorable to the detainee, rather than a subjective standard that favored the officers.

In its decision on Monday, the Supreme Court agreed with Kingsley.

“We hold that the courts must use an objective standard,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

He added, “A pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.”

Justice Breyer said the determination should be made from the perspective of “a reasonable officer on the scene, including what the officer knew at the time, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said he agreed that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects pre-trial detainees from use of excessive force that amounts to punishment.

But Justice Scalia disagreed that any use of force that is “objectively unreasonable in degree” is a use of excessive force that amounts to punishment.   

He said the high court was wrong to establish its standard for excessive force cases under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

“There is an immense body of state statutory and common law under which individuals abused by state officials can seek relief,” he said. “The Due Process Clause is not a font of tort law to be superimposed upon that state system.”

Justice Samuel Alito also filed a dissenting opinion. He said he would dismiss the case as improvidently granted. Rather than deciding an excessive force case under the due process clause, he said, the court should have waited for a case raising the same claim under the Fourth Amendment.

That is a question the high court has not yet addressed, but relying on the Fourth Amendment would provide a firmer foundation for a high court decision, he said.  

The case was Kingsley v. Hendrickson (14-6368).

Also on Monday, the court decided that a company may not be required to continue to make royalty payments to a patent holder once the patent’s 20-year period of protection has expired.

The decision means that Stephen Kimble, the inventor of a Spider-Man action toy, is no longer entitled to receive royalties, since his patent expired in 2010.

The ruling marks a victory for Marvel Enterprises, which has paid millions in royalties but stopped making payments in 2010.

Lawyers for Mr. Kimble had urged the Supreme Court to overturn a 1964 case that supported Marvel’s position. In a 6-to-3 decision on Monday, the high court declined to overturn the decision.

The case was Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises (13-720).

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