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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms denial of defendant correctional officer’s motion to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity in excessive force civil rights lawsuit

On May 9, 2019, in Piazza v. Hunter, et al., No. 18-10487, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s denial of the defendant correctional officer’s motion to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity in an excessive force civil rights lawsuit.  The case was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the personal representative of the estate of a pretrial detainee who died while in the city jail in Birmingham Alabama.  The decedent had been arrested on a public intoxication charge and allegedly began exhibiting delusional and suicidal behavior.  During an attempt to move him to a padded cell, the defendant officer tasered him in the chest and he fell to the floor, urinated on himself and became unresponsive.  The officer then allegedly tasered him again, this time in the neck, causing him to lapse into cardiac arrest.  He died soon thereafter.  The district court denied the officer’s motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds and a motion to dismiss against two supervisory officers.  The Eleventh Circuit noted that while the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of excessive force during arrests and the Eighth Amendment provides similar protections after conviction, it is the Fourteenth Amendment that applies to excessive force claims of pretrial detainees, citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).   The Court further noted that unlike a prisoner bringing an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim, a pretrial detainee raising a Fourteenth Amendment claim needn’t prove an officer’s subjective intent to harm but instead need show only that “the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable” (quoting from Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. 2466, 2473 (2015) and “[o]nce a prisoner has stopped resisting there is no longer a need for force, so the use of force thereafter is disproportionate to the need” (quoting from Danley v. Allen, 540 F.3d 1298, 1309 (11th Cir. 2008)).  However, regarding the supervisory liability claim against the two superior officers, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that dismissal was appropriate because absent allegations of personal participation supervisory liability is permissible only if there is a causal connection between a supervisor’s actions and the alleged constitutional violation.  The Court noted that this can be shown if a supervisor’s policy or custom resulted in deliberate indifference to constitutional rights, but a single incident can never alone serve as the basis for such a violation.