Hudson v. McMillian

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Hudson v. McMillian  (1992) 

Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), is a United States Supreme Court decision where the Court on a 7-2 vote held that the use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment even though the inmate does not suffer serious injury.

Court Documents
Concurring Opinions
Dissenting Opinion

Supreme Court of the United States

503 U.S. 1

Hudson  v.  McMillian

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

No. 90-6531  Argued: November 13, 1991 --- Decided: February 25, 1992

Petitioner Hudson, a Louisiana prison inmate, testified that minor bruises, facial swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate he had suffered resulted from a beating by respondent prison guards McMillian and Woods while he was handcuffed and shackled following an argument with McMillian, and that respondent Mezo, a supervisor on duty, watched the beating but merely told the officers "not to have too much fun." The Magistrate trying Hudson's District Court suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 found that the officers used force when there was no need to do so and that Mezo expressly condoned their actions, ruled that respondents had violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, and awarded Hudson damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding, inter alia, that inmates alleging use of excessive force in violation of the Amendment must prove "significant injury" and that Hudson could not prevail because his injuries were "minor" and required no medical attention.

Held: The use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment even though the inmate does not suffer serious injury. Pp. 5–12.

(a) Whenever prison officials stand accused of using excessive physical force constituting "the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" violative of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the core judicial inquiry is that set out in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 320–321: whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore [p. 2] discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm. Extending Whitley's application of the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" standard to all allegations of force, whether the prison disturbance is a riot or a lesser disruption, works no innovation. See, e. g., Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1033. Pp. 5–7.

(b) Since, under the Whitley approach, the extent of injury suffered by an inmate is one of the factors to be considered in determining whether the use of force is wanton and unnecessary, 475 U.S., at 321, the absence of serious injury is relevant to, but does not end, the Eighth Amendment inquiry. There is no merit to respondents' assertion that a significant injury requirement is mandated by what this Court termed, in Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298, the "objective component" of Eighth Amendment analysis: whether the alleged wrongdoing is objectively "harmful enough" to establish a constitutional violation, id., at 303. That component is contextual and responsive to "contemporary standards of decency." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103. In the excessive force context, such standards always are violated when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, see Whitley, 475 U.S., at 327, whether or not significant injury is evident. Moreover, although the Amendment does not reach de minimis uses of physical force, provided that such use is not of a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind, ibid., the blows directed at Hudson are not de minimis, and the extent of his injuries thus provides no basis for dismissal of his §1983 claim. Pp. 7–10.

(c) The dissent's theory that Wilson requires an inmate who alleges excessive force to show significant injury in addition to the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain misapplies Wilson and ignores the body of this Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Wilson did not involve an allegation of excessive force and, with respect to the "objective component" of an Eighth Amendment claim, suggested no departure from Estelle and its progeny. The dissent's argument that excessive force claims and conditions-of-confinement claims are no different in kind is likewise unfounded. To deny the difference between punching a prisoner in the face and serving him unappetizing food is to ignore the concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency that animate the Eighth Amendment. See Estelle, supra, at 102. Pp. 10–11.

(d) This Court takes no position on respondents' legal argument that their conduct was isolated, unauthorized, and against prison policy and therefore beyond the scope of "punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. That argument is inapposite on the record, since the Court of Appeals left intact the Magistrate's determination that the violence at issue was not an isolated assault, and ignores the Magistrate's finding that supervisor Mezo expressly condoned the use of force. Moreover, to the extent that respondents rely on the unauthorized na- [p. 3] ture of their acts, they make a claim not addressed by the Court of Appeals, not presented by the question on which this Court granted certiorari, and, accordingly, not before this Court. Pp. 11–12.

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined, and in which Stevens, J., joined as to Parts I, II–A, II–B, and II–C. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 12. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 13. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined, post, p. 17.

Alvin J. Bronstein, by appointment of the Court, 500 U.S. 903, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were John A. Powell, Steven R. Shapiro, Mark J. Lopez, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Deputy Solicitor General Roberts argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorneys General Dunne and Mueller, Acting Deputy Solicitor General Wright, and Ronald J. Mann.

Harry McCall, Jr., Special Assistant Attorney General of Louisiana, argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General, Jonathan C. McCall, Special Assistant Attorney General, and Jenifer Schaye, Clifton O. Bingham, Jr., Houston C. Gascon III, and Joseph Erwin Kopsa, Assistant Attorneys General.[1]


  1. . Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., by Daniel B. Hales, Emory A. Plitt, Jr., Wayne W. Schmidt, and James P. Manak; for the D. C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, Inc., by Theodore A. Howard and Richard J. Arsenault; for Human Rights Watch by Cameron Clark; and for the Prisoners' Legal Service of New York by John A. Gresham and Stephen M. Latimer.

A brief of amici curiae urging affirmance was filed for the State of Texas et al. by Dan Morales, Attorney General of Texas, Will Pryor, First Assistant Attorney General, Mary F. Keller, Deputy Attorney General, and Michael P. Hodge, Charles A. Palmer, Sharon Felfe, and Adrian L. Young, Assistant Attorneys General, joined by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Warren Price III of Hawaii, Joseph B. Meyer of Wyoming, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, and Robert A. Butterworth of Florida.