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Departments : Point of Law

Use of Force on Prisoners

Documentation and self-control are the keys to protecting yourself against charges of unreasonable force on persons in custody.

January 03, 2004  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

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Police, sheriffs, and correctional officials have daily contact with and custody of individuals who don't always obey the rules and who sometimes require an application of some kind of force, whether for self-defense, defense of others, or compliance.

Consequently, there are a number of court decisions discussing the circumstances under which force can and cannot be used, and the constitutional principles that will apply if your use of force is challenged in court. Some cases will fall under the Fourth Amendment rules on searches and seizures; some will arise under the Fifth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment due process clauses; and others will be considered under the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Fourth Amendment

Force used to take a person into custody is subject to the search and seizure clause. When you use force while taking an arrestee into custody, the reasonableness of the use of force will be a Fourth Amendment issue. Under Fourth Amendment principles, courts will examine (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to your safety or the safety of other officers or citizens, and (3) whether he or she is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. (Graham v. Connor.)

Therefore, when you have to use force in making an arrest, be sure your arrest report fully details the three Graham factors, and shows why the amount and kind of force you used were appropriate. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court cautioned lower courts about the tendency to second-guess officers: "The reasonableness of a particular use of force is to be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation."

Also, the court held that use-of-force assessments are not to be based on an inquiry into your subjective beliefs about the situation you confronted, but are to be measured objectively, based on conclusions about how a reasonable officer in your position would have reacted. "The question is whether the officers' actions are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation," said the court.

It's also important to keep in mind that the issue is not whether force was necessary, but whether it was reasonable. It might turn out in retrospect that force would not have been necessary, but if it reasonably appeared to be the prudent thing to do at the time, the force is not excessive. Therefore, instead of describing your actions in a report by saying "necessary force was used," it would be more appropriate to say, "reasonable force was used."

Deadly force can lawfully be used to save life in self-defense or in defense of others, or to prevent the escape of a dangerous offender who is reasonably believed to have committed or attempted a crime involving the threat of death or serious bodily injury, and if, where feasible, a warning has been given. (Tennessee v. Garner.)

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