Section 1983 claim for excessive force

Prisoner's excessive force claims

Excessive Force

On April 16, 2019, the Fifth Circuit issued its opinion in Bourne v. Gunnels. Two issues addressed by the court were (i) whether Bourne’s excessive force claim was barred by the Heck v. Humphrey doctrine and (ii) whether the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

We previously wrote about Heck here. In summary, Heck bars an individual from challenging his conviction or confinement via a Section 1983 claim if winning that claim would imply the invalidity of the criminal judgment.

We also wrote here about the defense of qualified immunity. The determination of whether a law enforcement officer (or other government employee, for that matter) is entitled to qualified immunity includes two inquiries.

First, did the officer violate a constitutional right of the injured party?

Second, was that constitutional right “clearly established” at the time of the alleged misconduct by the officer?

The facts of Bourne.

Bourne was being held as a prisoner in Texas. For reasons not entirely clear in the court’s decision, Bourne was protesting something and had taken control of the food tray slot in his prison door by stuffing it with towels and a sheet. He also covered the windows to his cell with a sheet.

Prison officials authorized the use of force to regain control of the door. After giving Bourne several warnings, the officials used a chemical spray against him and entered the cell to subdue him.

The prison officials stated that they used a limited and reasonable amount of force. Bourne, on the other hand, claimed that they continue to abuse him after he was handcuffed and shackled on the floor of his cell.

The district court dismisses Bourne’s lawsuit.

The district court ruled that (i) the monetary claims against the defendants in their official capacity were barred by the 11th Amendment, (ii) the excessive force claim was barred by Heck, and (iii) the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

With respect to the application of the Heck doctrine, the district court noted that Bourne received a disciplinary conviction of tampering with his cell door and creating a disturbance, resulting in a forfeiture of 30 days’ good-time credit.

The district court concluded that if Bourne succeeded on his excessive force claim, that success would “implicate the validity of his disciplinary conviction for creating the disturbance that resulted in the use of force.”

On appeal, Bourne only challenged the last two of these rulings.

The Fifth Circuit reverses.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s application of Heck. The court agreed that Bourne was disciplined for tampering with his food tray slot and creating a disturbance, thereby requiring the use of force by prison officials.

The court observed, however, that “the § 1983 excessive-force claims arise from the specific force defendants used after he was restrained on his cell floor. The basis of Bourne’s § 1983 excessive-force claims, therefore, is distinct from the basis of his disciplinary conviction.”

Thus, the court ruled, “a finding of excessive force would not negate the prison’s finding that Bourne violated its policies and was subject to disciplinary action as a result. Accordingly, Heck and its progeny do not bar Bourne’s excessive-force claims.”

With respect to the lower court’s ruling on qualified immunity, the Fifth Circuit explained that “the amount of force that is constitutionally permissible must be judged by the context in which that force is deployed.” Courts must “decide excessive force claims based on the nature of the force rather than the extent of the injury.”

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Bourne and making all inferences in his favor, the Fifth Circuit concluded that there was a genuine dispute of material fact, namely, whether the force employed after he was restrained on his cell floor “was used in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.”

The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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