Last week, in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the United States Supreme Court changed the law in the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina. North Carolina police officers will now work in a world in which it is easier for a pretrial detainee to bring a claim of excessive force against them. Pretrial detainees are those individuals who have been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial on their charges. They are not prisoners, as they have not been convicted.

 A Question of Intent

 In Kingsley, the Supreme Court ruled that under federal law, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force used against him was “objectively unreasonable” to prevail on an excessive force claim. This is a significant departure from the current law in many US Circuits, not only the 4th Circuit, which required a pretrial detainee to satisfy a more rigorous “subjective standard” to prevail on an excessive force claim.

Kingsley was a pretrial detainee in a county jail. Kingsley claimed that he was forcibly beaten and stunned with a Taser when he would not comply with the prison officers’ instructions as he was being moved to a holding cell. Kingsley later sued the prison officials, alleging excessive force in violation of his Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

At the heart of Kingsley is a pretty straightforward question of intent. During the trial, the law required Kingsley to prove the officers intentionally harmed Kingsley – a “subjective standard.” Under that high standard, Kingsley lost. Kingsley appealed this decision, and argued that he shouldn’t have to prove the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable. Rather, Kingsley contended that he should only have to prove that their use of force was “objectively unreasonable” to win his suit – that is, would a reasonable officer consider the force acceptable under those circumstances. The Supreme Court agreed with Kingsley.

 What Does this Ruling Mean for NC Local Governments?

This ruling has significant practical implications for local governments:

  •  Training: Facilities will be required to train officers to interact with detainees as if the officers’ conduct is subject to objective reasonableness. This will likely require new training for officers on the issues of when officers can use force, what level of force can be used, and what type of force can be used in certain circumstances. The officers will need to be trained on the use of force requirements under an objective reasonableness, Fourth Amendment analysis.
  • Policies and Procedures: Facilities will also be required to review existing policies and procedures on use of force with pretrial detainees to determine if they satisfy the new requirements. These may need to be revised to meet the new standard.
  • Insurance: Local governments will need to review their insurance policies and coverages to determine if the new standard creates any unintended coverage gaps in use of force claims with pretrial detainees.

I have worked with local governments on use of force standards, policies and procedures as well as insurance coverage for more than 15 years. North Carolina local governments who wish to review their policies, trainings, and insurance, in light of this game changing decision, can reach me at or 919-863-8757.