The U.S. Supreme Court, in separate cases decided June 22, struck down a law that required hotels to give police information about guests without any opportunity to contest the matter before complying, and made it easier for pretrial detainees to sue jailers for excessive force.

In City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the Court held that a city ordinance which required hotel operators to make their guest registries available to police without any opportunity for precompliance review violated the Fourth Amendment.

In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Court held that a pretrial detaining seeking to prove an excessive force claim against jailers need only show that the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable, not that the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable.

Fourth Amendment Requires Opportunity for Precompliance Review

Los Angeles enacted a city ordinance which required hotels to collect certain information about their guests upon check-in, and turn that information over to police upon demand.  Failure to make the records available for inspection-on-demand was a misdemeanor.

Various hotel operators claimed that the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment, because the hotels had no opportunity to contest the searches before they occurred.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 opinion, agreed.

The Court first held that the hotels could bring a facial challenge to the ordinance under the Fourth Amendment, attacking the statute itself, as opposed to a particular application.

“[F]acial challenges under the Fourth Amendment are not categorically barred or especially disfavored,” the Court said.  While such challenges are “the most difficult to mount successfully,” the Court “has never held that these claims cannot be brought.”

Turning to the merits, the Court viewed the searches at issue as administrative searches to ensure compliance with record-keeping requirements which deter criminal activity at hotels.  The Court did not view the searches as for “conducting criminal investigations.”

“[A]bsent consent, exigent circumstances, or the like, in order for an administrative search to be constitutional, the subject of the search must be afforded an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker,” the Court said.

The problem with the ordinance is that a hotel operator who refuses to comply with a police demand for records can be arrested on the spot.  “[B]usiness owners cannot reasonably be put to this kind of choice,” the Court said.

The Fourth Amendment requires that hotel operators be given the opportunity to have a neutral decisionmaker review an officer’s demand to search the hotel’s records before facing penalties for failure to comply, the Court held.

“Absent an opportunity for precompliance review, the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests,” the Court noted.  A hotel operator could be harassed by police into turning over their records “10 times a day” without a violation ever being found, the Court said.

The Court said that such searches would be permissible pursuant to an administrative subpoena filled out by officers “without probable cause that a regulation is being infringed.”  Hotel operators could then move to quash the subpoena, and a neutral decisionmaker, such as an administrative law judge, could review the hotel’s objections before deciding whether the subpoena is enforceable.

“Given the limited grounds on which a motion to quash can be granted, such challenges will likely be rare,” the Court said.

Excessive Force Test is Objective Unreasonableness

In Kingsley, the Court, in a 6-3 opinion, resolved a circuit split as to the standard a pretrial detainee must show in a Sec. 1983 excessive force claim against jailers.

Jail officers used a Taser on pretrial detainee Michael Kingsley, while he was handcuffed, after Kingsley had refused to remove a paper covering a light fixture in his cell.   Kingsley sued for excessive use of force under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

The district court and Seventh Circuit held that Kingsley must prove an actual or reckless intent by officers to use excessive force.
But the Supreme Court reversed.

The Court noted that there are two states of mind at issue in excessive force cases.  The first concerns the officers’ state of mind with respect to bringing about their physical acts.  With regard to that, a plaintiff must prove that the officers acted with a purposeful, knowing or possibly reckless state of mind.  Mere negligence will not suffice.

“Thus, if an officer’s Taser goes off by accident or if an officer unintentionally trips and falls on a detainee, causing him harm, the pretrial detainee cannot prevail on an excessive force claim,” the Court said.  “But if the use of force is deliberate – i.e., purposeful or knowing – the pretrial detainee’s claim may proceed.”
The Court stated that recklessness might also suffice for liability in some cases, though the majority expressly refused to decide that.

The second state of mind was at the crux of Kingsley – that is, should courts use an objective or subjective standard in deciding whether the force deliberately used was constitutionally “excessive.”

The test is objective, the Court held.  “Thus, the defendant’s state of mind is not a matter that a plaintiff is required to prove.” 

“[A] pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable,” the Court held.

In making that determination, the majority said that courts must consider what a reasonable officer on the scene knew at the time, and also take into account legitimate jail security needs.  Courts may also consider factors such as the relationship between the need for force and the amount of force used; the extent of the plaintiff’s injury; any efforts made by officers to limit the use of force; the severity of the security problem; the level of the threat; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting.

The Court concluded by noting that its opinion applies only to pretrial detainees’ claims under the due process clause.

The Court expressly reserved ruling on how its opinion may impact excessive force claims brought by convicted prisoners under the Eighth Amendment.

“We acknowledge that our view that an objective standard is appropriate in the context of excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment may raise questions about the use of a subjective standard in the context of excessive force claims brought by convicted prisoners,” the Court said.  “We are not confronted with such a claim, however, so we need not address that issue today.”