Wilson V. Spain: Will Pretrial Detainees Escape the Constitutional "Twight Zone"?

By Baker, Irene M. | St. John's Law Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Wilson V. Spain: Will Pretrial Detainees Escape the Constitutional "Twight Zone"?


Baker, Irene M., St. John's Law Review


COMMENTS

INTRODUCTION

42 U.S.C. sec 1983 provides a civil remedy to individuals who are deprived of constitutional rights through the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials.1 In examining an excessive force claim brought under sec 1983, the Supreme Court dictates the analysis begin "by identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force."2 Courts examining claims of excessive force by law enforcement officials have found, depending upon the particular circumstances, the Fourth Amendment,3 the Eighth

Amendment,4 or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment5 to be implicated. There exists confusion among the federal courts regarding the proper constitutional standard to be applied to claims of excessive force under 1983 following the initial arrest and extending through conviction and incarceration.6 While the Supreme Court has held that the

Fourth Amendment governs claims of excessive force during "the course of an arrest ... or other seizure" of a person,7 the Court expressly refused to rule on how to analyze a claim of excessive force "beyond the point at which arrest ends and pretrial detention begins."8 Circuit courts are left to determine the appropriate constitutional standard to be applied to an individual following arrest, but prior to conviction.9 Recently in Wilson v. Spain,10 the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held the

Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure provides the appropriate standard of review for a pretrial detainee's claim of excess force by law enforcement officials.11

Officer David Spain arrested Robert Wilson for public intoxication, and another officer, Stanley Cain, escorted Wilson to the local jail.12 Both Spain and Cain helped book Wilson, who was uncooperative and hostile.13 Wilson was permitted to call his brother to request a ride home, but when his brother arrived, the officers decided to keep Wilson in custody.14 Officer Spain placed Wilson against the wall and frisked him, but Wilson resisted and attempted to elbow the officer.15 Wilson was wrestled to the floor, then handcuffed, and placed in a holding cell.16 While in the cell, Wilson began yelling and pounding on the inside of the door of the cell.17 Officer Spain unlocked the door, pushed the door open forcefully, thereby knocking Wilson unconscious.18 Wilson was taken to a hospital shortly thereafter.19

Wilson sued Spain under sec 1983, alleging Officer Spain used excessive force against him in violation of his constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.20 The district court assumed there is a constitutional right to be free from excessive force while detained by law enforcement officials.21 Finding no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Officer Spain should have known that his actions violated Wilson's right to be free from excessive force, the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants.22

On appeal, Judge Bowman of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that while there is no question about a pretrial detainee's right to be free from excessive force, "there is some ongoing uncertainty about which constitutional text is the source of that right."23 The court only briefly discussed the confusion among the circuits regarding the appropriate standard of review for claims of excessive force against pretrial detainees.24 Without reconciling the split among the circuits, the court cited earlier decisions in which the Eighth Circuit had applied Fourth Amendment standards to excessive force claims under sec 1983 by pretrial detainees.25 The court, in applying the Fourth Amendment to claims of excessive force, relied on case law that focused on an extension of the reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure beyond the actual act of arrest.26 The Wilson court determined the Fourth Amendment standard strikes the most appropriate balance between the rights of the pretrial detainee and the governmental interest in maintaining order.

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Wilson V. Spain: Will Pretrial Detainees Escape the Constitutional "Twight Zone"?
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