Whitley v. Albers
Annotate this Case
475 U.S. 312 (1986)
U.S. Supreme Court
Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986)
Whitley v. Albers
Argued December 10, 1985
Decided March 4, 1986
475 U.S. 312
During the course of a riot at the Oregon State Penitentiary, a prison officer was taken hostage and placed in a cell on the upper tier of a two-tier cellblock. In an attempt to free the hostage, prison officials worked out a plan that called for the prisoner security manager to enter the cellblock unarmed, followed by prison officers armed with shotguns. The security manager ordered one of the officers to fire a warning shot and to shoot low at any inmates climbing the stairs to the upper tier, since he would be climbing the stairs to free the hostage. One of the officers, after firing a warning shot, shot respondent in the left knee when he started up the stairs. Respondent subsequently brought an action in Federal District Court against petitioner prison officials pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, that they had deprived him of his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. At the conclusion of the trial, the District Court directed a verdict for petitioners. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on respondent's Eighth Amendment claim.
1. The shooting of respondent did not violate his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments. Pp. 475 U. S. 318-326.
(a) It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whether that conduct occurs in connection with establishing conditions of confinement, supplying medical needs, or restoring control over a tumultuous cellblock. The infliction of pain in the course of a prison security measure, therefore, does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment simply because it may appear in retrospect that the degree of force authorized or applied for security purposes was unreasonable, and hence unnecessary in the strict sense. The general requirement that an Eighth Amendment claimant establish the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain should also be applied with due regard for differences in the kind of conduct involved. Thus, where a prison security measure is undertaken to resolve a disturbance, such as occurred in this case, that poses significant risks to the safety of inmates
and prison staff, the question whether the measure taken inflicted unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering ultimately turns on whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the purpose of causing harm. Pp. 475 U. S. 318-322.
(b) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to respondent, as must be done in reviewing the decision reversing the trial court's directed verdict for petitioners, it does not appear that the evidence supports a reliable inference of wantonness in the infliction of pain under the above standard. Evidence arguably showing that the prison officials erred in judgment when they decided on a plan that employed potentially deadly force falls far short of a showing that there was no plausible basis for their belief that this degree of force was necessary. In particular, the order to shoot, qualified by an instruction to shoot low, falls short of commanding the infliction of pain in a wanton and unnecessary fashion. Nor was the failure to provide for a verbal warning, in addition to a warning shot, so insupportable as to be wanton, since any inmate running up the stairs after the prison security manager could reasonably be thought to pose a threat to the rescue attempt. And the failure to take into account the possibility that respondent might climb the stairs in an effort to return to his cell does not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation. Assuming that the prison officer shot at respondent, rather than at the inmates as a group, does not establish that the officer shot respondent knowing that it was unnecessary to do so. Under all these circumstances, the shooting was part and parcel of a good faith effort to restore prison security. Pp. 475 U. S. 322-326.
2. In this case, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment cannot serve as an alternative basis for affirmance, independently of the Eighth Amendment. In the prison security context, the Due Process Clause affords respondent no greater protection than does the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Pp. 475 U. S. 326-327.
743 F.2d 1372, reversed.
O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, and in all but n. 2 of which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 328.
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