February 22, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Wilkins v. Gaddy

On February 22, the Supreme Court decided Wilkins v. Gaddy, No. 08-10914, reiterating its previous holding, in Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1, 4 (1992), that "the use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment [even] when the inmate does not suffer serious injury."

Wilkins, a prisoner in the North Carolina prison system, filed suit in federal court alleging violation of his constitutional rights because he had been "maliciously and sadistically" assaulted without provocation by a prison guard and, as a result, had suffered a bruised heel, lower back pain, increased blood pressure, migraine headaches and various psychological difficulties. The district court, without waiting for the defendant's response to the complaint, dismissed the action for failure to state a claim, because Wilkins had not alleged that he had suffered more than de minimis injury as a result of the alleged attack. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed summarily.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court granted the petition for a writ of certiorari and reversed the Court of Appeals' judgment, holding that the lower courts had "strayed from the clear holding" of Hudson. That case, the Court reiterated, rejected the proposition that "significant injury" is a threshold requirement of a claim of excessive force in violation of the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the Eighth Amendment. Rather, the relevant question is "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously or sadistically to cause harm." The extent of the injury suffered by the prisoner may be relevant in determining whether the use of force could reasonably have been thought to be necessary under the circumstances, and it may be evidence of the amount of force that was applied. But "an inmate who is gratuitously beaten by guards does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury." Contrary to the approach taken by the lower courts in this case, a claim of excessive force cannot be rejected solely because of the court's perception of the severity of the claimant's injuries.

Although the Court's decision to reverse the judgment in this case was unanimous, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, concurred only in the judgment, writing separately to reiterate his belief that Hudson had been wrongly decided.

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