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Echoes of Freddie Gray from the Supreme Court

This new Supreme Court decision sheds light on how we should view the force allegedly used on Freddie Gray.

The Supreme Court watchers anticipating decisions related to the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage came away disappointed from today's reading of opinions, but the outcome of one of the lesser-known cases announced by the justices should be of particular interest to Baltimoreans. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the court held that a pre-trial detainee making a claim of excessive force against officers did not have to show that they recklessly disregarded his rights but merely that an objective observer would consider the use of force to be excessive. Though there are a number of material differences between this case stemming from a jail cell encounter in Wisconsin and recent events here in Baltimore, it's impossible not to see a connection between the issues the justices considered and the circumstances leading to the death of Freddie Gray.

In 2010, a man named Michael Kingsley was arrested in Wisconsin on a drug charge and held in jail pending trial. He had covered the light in his cell with a piece of paper, and he refused repeated requests from jail officials to remove it. Eventually, guards handcuffed him and forcibly removed him from his cell, taking him to another in which he was placed face down on a concrete bunk. Some of the facts of what happened next are in dispute, but ultimately, the officers struck him with a Taser for five seconds. In a federal complaint, he argued that the officers violated the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment — effectively punishing him without his having been convicted of a crime.

The officers argued, and lower courts agreed, that the plaintiff had to show "an actual intent to violate [his] rights or reckless disregard for his rights." But the Supreme Court reversed them in a 6-3 decision holding that the state of mind of the officers is irrelevant but that the standard should be whether a "reasonable officer on the scene" would consider the force used to be excessive. Factors to consider, the justices in the majority wrote, include "the relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used; the extent of the plaintiff's injury; any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force; the severity of the security problem at issue; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting."

The Kingsley case was a civil one, and at least for the moment, the Freddie Gray case is solely in criminal court. But the question of whether and how officers can use force on those who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime is at the heart of both.

Witnesses to Gray's arrest allege that officers were rough when they handcuffed him, and there has been much debate about whether video of the incident suggests that he was seriously injured before he was placed in a police van. But police and prosecutors have both said that the fatal spinal cord injury Gray suffered occurred while he was inside the van. Prosecutors accuse the officers of placing a handcuffed and eventually shackled Gray face-down on the floor of a police van and failing to secure him with a seat belt. Officers both ignored Gray's calls for medical attention and took their time in transporting him to the Western District police station, following a circuitous route through the neighborhood and stopping to pick up another prisoner, prosecutors say.

One of the most chilling things about the allegations in this case is the idea that it was not just one or two officers who encountered Freddie Gray but six and that none of them stepped in to ensure that he received medical attention or that he was properly secured in the van. If the allegations are true, it suggests that none of them considered such treatment in any way unusual. Had the Supreme Court held that a detainee's rights are violated only if force was applied "maliciously and sadistically to cause harm," the very casualness of the treatment prosecutors describe in the Gray case might have worked in their favor.

Time will tell whether this decision will be a factor in the criminal cases against the officers or merely in the civil suit that is sure to follow. But for all those trying to make sense of how police officers treat people on the streets of Baltimore and other cities, it serves as an important reminder that police cannot use force to punish but solely to achieve a legitimate purpose such as maintaining safety and security, and that the officer's state of mind doesn't matter. Those who are arrested have rights, and the police must respect them.

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