8th Amendment Governs Use of Force on Inmate

by | August 17, 2023

Johnson v. Sootsman, 2023 WL 5274516 (6th Cir. 2023)

Joseph Johnson pled guilty to a probation violation and was sentenced to several weeks in jail. He was booked into the county jail, screened for classification and assigned to general population. While waiting to be moved to general population, Johnson was yelling and banging on his cell door; he threw his sack lunch. A deputy came into the intake area, noticed Johnson arguing with another deputy and saw the situation quickly escalating. The second deputy believed she could calm Johnson by removing him from the situation and told him she was taking him to his assigned cell. Two other deputies followed to assist, if necessary.

As the three deputies followed Johnson from the intake area into the hallway leading to general population, Deputy Clair Sootsman was escorting two other inmates. None of the inmates were handcuffed. Sootsman led the way down the hallway, followed by the inmates he was escorting. Johnson followed next, with the three deputies escorting him behind. Johnson began walking quickly. When a deputy told him to slow down and wait for her, Johnson ignored her and continued walking quickly.

Sootsman looked to see who was causing the commotion behind him. When Johnson caught up to Sootsman and the inmates he was escorting, Johnson tried to pass them. Sootsman pointed his finger toward Johnson, who continued to walk for about another 20 feet before finally stopping with his back toward the wall. Sootsman asked Johnson why he did not slow down or stop as he was told, but Johnson did not answer. Sootsman repeatedly pointed his finger at Johnson and yelled at him, saying Johnson was “being a p—y” and asking him why he would not “look him in the eyes.” Johnson responded in a normal tone of voice, “I am.”

Johnson took a step toward Sootsman and to the right. Sootsman interpreted the step as a threat, though the other deputies did not. One deputy described Sootsman’s actions as “out of the blue.” Sootsman extended his arm and pinned Johnson against the wall for two to three seconds. Sootsman then turned Johnson around away from the wall, grabbed him around the neck from behind and laid him on the ground with another deputy’s help. Johnson was handcuffed and taken to a cell. The incident was captured on jail surveillance video.

An inmate plaintiff must show the defendant officer acted with “deliberate indifference” to the question of whether the force was necessary.

Johnson suffered no visible injury from the incident and did not receive medical care while he was confined at the jail. However, he filed a grievance against Sootsman and an internal investigation found Sootsman improperly used force on Johnson and had likely committed an assault and battery. The incident was screened by a prosecutor; Sootsman was charged with misdemeanor battery, to which he pled guilty.

A year after the incident, Johnson sought medical treatment. He also filed suit against Sootsman, claiming a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The trial court granted summary judgment to Sootsman and Johnson appealed.

An inmate plaintiff must show the defendant officer acted with “deliberate indifference” to the question of whether the force was necessary. Courts have held that, to prevail on an excessive force claim under the Eighth Amendment, a plaintiff must show the defendant officer used force “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of inflicting pain” (Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992)). This is a very high standard. The Eighth Amendment prohibits only “cruel and unusual” punishments, not just uncomfortable or “even harsh” ones. If the defendant officer used force out of a belief, “even an unreasonable belief,” that the force was necessary to control an inmate plaintiff and to maintain order, then qualified immunity is appropriate.

The court held, “Johnson’s Eighth Amendment claim flunks these standards.” Though the trial court dismissed Johnson’s claim on the grounds that he suffered only de minimis injuries, the appellate court took another route. It found that Johnson could not satisfy the test of proving Sootsman used force “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of inflicting pain…The video of the encounter illustrates that Sootsman used an amount of force proportional to the need for forcibly bringing Johnson under control.”

Johnson relied on the internal investigation finding Sootsman violated jail policy. The court noted, “A sheriff’s department may choose to hold its officers to a higher standard than that required by the Constitution.” Nor did Sootsman’s guilty plea to battery help Johnson. Even if the plea meant Sootsman acknowledged his force was “unreasonable,” it did not equal an admission that he used force “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.”

To be sure, the appellate court expressed no approval of Sootsman’s actions. The court observed, “States may impose stricter limits on officers than the Constitution demands, so Johnson may try to seek relief under state tort law.”

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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