536 U.S. 730 (2002), 01-309, Hope v. Pelzer

Docket Nº:No. 01-309
Citation:536 U.S. 730, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666, 70 U.S.L.W. 4710
Case Date:June 27, 2002
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 730

536 U.S. 730 (2002)

122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666, 70 U.S.L.W. 4710




No. 01-309

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 2002

Argued April 17, 2002



In 1995, petitioner Hope, then an Alabama prison inmate, was twice handcuffed to a hitching post for disruptive conduct. During a 2-hour period in May, he was offered drinking water and a bathroom break every 15 minutes, and his responses were recorded on an activity log. He was handcuffed above shoulder height, and when he tried moving his arms to improve circulation, the handcuffs cut into his wrists, causing pain and discomfort. After an altercation with a guard at his chain gang’s worksite in June, Hope was subdued, handcuffed, placed in leg irons, and transported back to the prison, where he was ordered to take off his shirt, thus exposing himself to the sun, and spent seven hours on the hitching post. While there, he was given one or two water breaks but no bathroom breaks, and a guard taunted him about his thirst. Hope filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against three guards. Without deciding whether placing Hope on the hitching post as punishment violated the Eighth Amendment, the Magistrate Judge found that the guards were entitled to qualified immunity. The District Court entered summary judgment for respondents, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The latter court answered the constitutional question, finding that the hitching post’s use for punitive purposes violated the Eighth Amendment. In finding the guards nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity, it concluded that Hope could not show, as required by Circuit precedent, that the federal law by which the guards’ conduct should be evaluated was established by cases that were “materially similar” to the facts in his own case.


The defense of qualified immunity was precluded at the summary judgment phase. Pp. 736-748.

(a) Hope’s allegations, if true, establish an Eighth Amendment violation. Among the “ ‘unnecessary and wanton’ inflictions of pain [constituting cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Amendment] are those that are ‘totally without penological justification.’ ” Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346. This determination is made in the context of prison conditions by ascertaining whether an official acted with “deliberate indifference” to the inmates’ health or safety, Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 8, a state of mind that can be inferred from the fact that the risk of harm is obvious, Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825.

Page 731

The Eighth Amendment violation here is obvious on the facts alleged. Any safety concerns had long since abated by the time Hope was handcuffed to the hitching post, because he had already been subdued, handcuffed, placed in leg irons, and transported back to prison. He was separated from his work squad and not given the opportunity to return. Despite the clear lack of emergency, respondents knowingly subjected him to a substantial risk of physical harm, unnecessary pain, unnecessary exposure to the sun, prolonged thirst and taunting, and a deprivation of bathroom breaks that created a risk of particular discomfort and humiliation. Pp. 736–738.

(b) Respondents may nevertheless be shielded from liability for their constitutionally impermissible conduct if their actions did not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818. In its assessment, the Eleventh Circuit erred in requiring that the facts of previous cases and Hope’s case be “materially similar.” Qualified immunity operates to ensure that before they are subjected to suit, officers are on notice that their conduct is unlawful. Officers sued in a § 1983 civil action have the same fair notice right as do defendants charged under 18 U.S.C. § 242, which makes it a crime for a state official to act willfully and under color of state to deprive a person of constitutional rights. This Court’s opinion in United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259, a § 242 case, makes clear that officials can be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual situations. Indeed, the Court expressly rejected a requirement that previous cases be “fundamentally similar.” Accordingly, the salient question that the Eleventh Circuit should have asked is whether the state of the law in 1995 gave respondents fair warning that Hope’s alleged treatment was unconstitutional. Pp. 739–741

(c) A reasonable officer would have known that using a hitching post as Hope alleged was unlawful. The obvious cruelty inherent in the practice should have provided respondents with some notice that their conduct was unconstitutional. In addition, binding Circuit precedent should have given them notice. Gates v. Collier, 501 F.2d 1291, found several forms of corporal punishment impermissible, including handcuffing inmates to fences or cells for long periods, and Ort v. White, 813 F.2d 318, 324, warned that “physical abuse directed at [a] prisoner after he terminate[s] his resistance to authority would constitute an actionable eighth amendment violation.” Relevant to the question whether Ort provided fair notice is a subsequent Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) regulation specifying procedures for using a hitching post, which included allowing an inmate to rejoin his squad when he tells an officer that he is ready to work. If regularly observed, that provision

Page 732

would have made Hope’s case less like the kind of punishment Ort described as impermissible. But conduct showing that the provision was a sham, or that respondents could ignore it with impunity, provides equally strong support for the conclusion that they were fully aware of their wrongful conduct. The conclusion here is also buttressed by the fact that the Justice Department specifically advised the ADOC of the constitutional infirmity of its practices before the incidents in this case took place. Pp. 741-746.

240 F.3d 975, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O’CONNOR, KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 748.

Craig T. Jones argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were James Mendelsohn, J. Richard Cohen, and Rhonda Brownstein.

Austin C. Schlick argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Olson, Assistant Attorneys General McCallum and Boyd, Deputy Solicitor General Clement, Barbara L. Herwig, and Richard A. Olderman.

Nathan A. Forrester, Solicitor General of Alabama, argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Bill Pryor, Attorney General, Alyce S. Robertson, Deputy Solicitor General, and Margaret Fleming and Ellen Leonard-Thomas, Assistant Attorneys General.

Gene C. Schaerr argued the cause for the State of Missouri et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Jeremiah W. Nixon, Attorney General of Missouri, and James R. Layton, State Solicitor, Robert H. Kono, Acting Attorney General of Guam, and Carter G. Phillips, joined by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Earl I. Anzai of Hawaii, Steve Carter of Indiana, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Hardy Myers of Oregon, D. Michael

Page 733

Fisher of Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mark L. Shurtleff of Utah, and Darrell v. McGraw, Jr., of West Virginia. [*]

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concluded that petitioner Larry Hope, a former prison inmate at the Limestone Prison in Alabama, was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment when prison guards twice handcuffed him to a hitching post to sanction him for disruptive conduct. Because that conclusion was not supported by earlier cases with “materially similar” facts, the court held that the respondents were entitled to qualified immunity, and therefore affirmed summary judgment in their favor. We granted certiorari to determine whether the Court of Appeals’ qualified immunity holding comports with our decision in United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259 (1997).


In 1995, Alabama was the only State that followed the practice of chaining inmates to one another in work squads. It was also the only State that handcuffed prisoners to “hitching posts” if they either refused to work or otherwise disrupted work squads.[1] Hope was handcuffed to a hitching

Page 734

post on two occasions. On May 11, 1995, while Hope was working in a chain gang near an interstate highway, he got into an argument with another inmate. Both men were taken back to the Limestone prison and handcuffed to a hitching post. Hope was released two hours later, after the guard captain determined that the altercation had been caused by the other inmate. During his two hours on the post, Hope was offered drinking water and a bathroom break every 15 minutes, and his responses to these offers were recorded on an activity log. Because he was only slightly taller than the hitching post, his arms were above shoulder height and grew tired from being handcuffed so high. Whenever he tried moving his arms to improve his circulation, the handcuffs cut into his wrists, causing pain and discomfort.

On June 7, 1995, Hope was punished more severely. He took a nap during the morning bus ride to the chain gang’s worksite, and when it arrived he was less than prompt in responding to an order to get off the bus. An exchange of vulgar remarks...

To continue reading