Prisoners who claim they were assaulted by guards in
violation of the Eighth Amendment are not barred from challenging such abuse in
court even if they were found guilty of disciplinary charges in connection with
the incident, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held. Moreover, it is
erroneous for a district court to rely on a guard’s written account of the
incident when videotape evidence is readily available.
In overturning a grant of summary judgment in favor of
a prison guard, the Court of Appeals ruled that the guard’s alleged act of
slamming a handcuffed prisoner into a wall and then to the floor was an event
legally distinct from the prisoner’s alleged assault on the guard moments
earlier. Prison guards who use excessive force after subduing prisoners are not
immunized from court oversight as a result of disciplinary infractions against
the prisoner, the Sixth Circuit wrote.
Michigan state prisoner Toran V. Peterson filed suit
in federal court, claiming that a prison guard identified only as “Jones” had,
without provocation, pushed up on his handcuffed arms to “slam” him into a
wall, then lifted him three feet off the ground to slam him to the floor.
Peterson was not seriously injured but filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint,
alleging cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment
among other claims.
Jones, represented by the state, had claimed that
Peterson – who was handcuffed behind his back at the time – had disobeyed an
order to proceed to his cell, so he “placed” Peterson against the wall and then
onto the floor “to gain control of him.” Jones moved for summary judgment on
the basis that Peterson had been found guilty of assaulting him in a
disciplinary proceeding in connection with the incident. The district court
agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Jones, using the disciplinary
conviction as the basis for the court’s factual findings and rejecting
Peterson’s request that the state be ordered to produce a videotape of the
incident, which had been preserved for the disciplinary hearing.
The Court of Appeals reversed on Peterson’s Eighth
Amendment claim, applying de novo review as to the objective and subjective
tests applicable to excessive force cases. The objective component of the test
requires that the pain inflicted be “sufficiently serious,” as defined by
Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294 (1991) [PLN, Sept. 1991, p.5], but “the
seriousness of the injuries is not dispositive.” Here, notwithstanding
Peterson’s lack of serious injuries, the district court concluded that Peterson
“may be able to satisfy the objective component” of the test. However, he could
not meet the subjective component because his disciplinary conviction meant
there was no genuine issue of material fact as to the subjective question of
whether “force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore
discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing
This was an error, the Sixth Circuit found. First,
Peterson claimed in his complaint that he did not resist Jones, which in itself
created a genuine issue of material fact. Second, contrary to the district
court’s ruling, the law is clear that the outcome of a disciplinary hearing
does not necessarily define whether an excessive force claim exists. “The
question here is not whether Peterson resisted or assaulted Jones … the
question is whether the amount of force Jones used on Peterson was excessive in
light of Peterson’s conduct.” See: Lockett v. Suardini, 526 F.3d 866 (6th Cir.
2008); Huey v. Stine, 230 F.3d 226 (6th Cir. 2000).
Thus, even if it were true that Peterson had resisted
or assaulted Jones, it cannot be said that a reasonable juror would necessarily
find Jones’ use of force justified; in short, Peterson’s disciplinary
conviction for assaulting Jones did not automatically justify the extent of the
force used against Peterson.
In rejecting Jones’ claim that videotape evidence of
the alleged assault would create a “security risk,” the Court of Appeals took
the district court to task for simply accepting the disciplinary hearing
officer’s account of the incident as the basis for the court’s factual findings
in the case. The Sixth Circuit noted that “the legal significance of the
videotape is readily apparent” to show how much force had been used against Peterson.
The case was remanded for further proceedings, where
it remains pending before the district court. See: Peterson v. Jones, Sixth
Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 11-1551 (Feb. 24, 2012) (unpublished).
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)