Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 15 (1994)

Page:   Index   Previous  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  Next

Cite as: 511 U. S. 825 (1994)

Opinion of the Court

Eighth Amendment has a "subjective component." 501 U. S., at 298. Petitioner's purely objective test for deliberate indifference is simply incompatible with Wilson's holding.

To be sure, the reasons for focusing on what a defendant's mental attitude actually was (or is), rather than what it should have been (or should be), differ in the Eighth Amendment context from that of the criminal law. Here, a subjective approach isolates those who inflict punishment; there, it isolates those against whom punishment should be inflicted. But the result is the same: to act recklessly in either setting a person must "consciously disregar[d]" a substantial risk of serious harm. Model Penal Code 2.02(2)(c).

At oral argument, the Deputy Solicitor General advised against frank adoption of a criminal-law mens rea requirement, contending that it could encourage triers of fact to find Eighth Amendment liability only if they concluded that prison officials acted like criminals. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 39- 40. We think this concern is misdirected. Bivens actions against federal prison officials (and their 42 U. S. C. 1983 counterparts against state officials) are civil in character, and a court should no more allude to the criminal law when enforcing the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause than when applying the Free Speech and Press Clauses, where we have also adopted a subjective approach to recklessness. See Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U. S. 657, 688 (1989) (holding that the standard for "reckless disregard" for the truth in a defamation action by a public figure "is a subjective one," requiring that "the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication," or that "the defendant actually had a high degree of awareness of . . . probable falsity") (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).7 That said, subjective recklessness as used in the criminal law is a familiar and workable stand-7 Appropriate allusions to the criminal law would, of course, be proper during criminal prosecutions under, for example, 18 U. S. C. 242, which sets criminal penalties for deprivations of rights under color of law.


Page:   Index   Previous  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  Next

Last modified: October 4, 2007