SCOTUS orders lower courts to review St. Louis police use-of-force case
Three justices dissented and accused their colleagues of avoiding a potentially controversial case
By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday told judges to take a second look at the case of a handcuffed man who suffocated and died in a St. Louis jail after officers put their weight on his back as he was lying face down.
Lawyers for the man’s parents had urged the high court to take up the case in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and to rule that this police tactic represents an unconstitutional use of excessive force.
A federal judge and the 8th Circuit Court had thrown out the parents’ suit and said the “use of prone restraint” is not unreasonable when a detained person continues to resist.
Rather than agree to hear the case, the justices set aside the 8th Circuit’s ruling and told its judges to reweigh evidence suggesting the use of force violated the Fourth Amendment.
Nicholas Gilbert had been arrested for trespassing in an abandoned building. An officer said that, at one point, he saw the man wrap a piece of clothing around a jail bar, suggesting he might try to commit suicide. As many as six officers then intervened to subdue the man.
He “was already handcuffed and leg shackled when officers moved him to the prone position and officers kept him in that position for 15 minutes,” the court said an unsigned order in Lombardo v. St. Louis. Moreover, the evidence “shows that officers placed pressure on Gilbert’s back even though St. Louis instructs its officers that pressing down on the back of a prone subject can cause suffocation.”
Three conservatives — Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch — dissented and accused their colleagues of ducking a ruling on a potentially controversial case.
“We have two respectable options: deny review of the factbound question that the case presents or grant the petition, have the case briefed and argued, roll up our sleeves, and decide the real issue,” Alito wrote. “I favor the latter course, but what we should not do is take the easy out that the court has chosen.”
The St. Louis case raised the question of whether the officers could be sued and held liable for using force that violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on an unreasonable seizure.
In their appeal in Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, lawyers for the parents asked the court “to decide the constitutionality of a police tactic that has killed hundreds of people and that serves no legitimate purpose.”
They told the court that in the past decade “at least 134 people have died in police custody from ‘asphyxia/restraint.’ Most of these deaths occurred in cases sharing features with this one: an unarmed man, suffering from mental illness or influenced by drugs or alcohol, pressed face-down on the ground after being handcuffed, and held there until he died.”
The case began in December of 2015 when Gilbert was arrested on suspicion of trespassing in a condemned building and taken to a holding cell at the jail. At some point, he was seen waving his arms and acting erratically. One officer claimed he saw him tie a piece of clothing to the bars of his cell. Several officers entered the cell to handcuff and subdue Gilbert.
A struggle went on for 15 minutes as he thrashed about and officers held him down. They kept doing so even as “he attempted to lift his body up” for air and said, “It hurts,” the lawyers for his parents told the court.
The struggle ended when Gilbert stopped breathing. The lawyers said an autopsy showed he had a “fractured sternum,” and a medical report said “the cause of death was forcible restraint inducing asphyxia.” The city’s medical examiner, however, said Gilbert had methamphetamines in his system and that his death was caused by heart disease and drug abuse as well as the forcible restraint.
Federal judges, backed by the Supreme Court, have repeatedly thrown out suits seeking to have a jury decide whether police have used excessive force.
Sometimes the court has said officers have “qualified immunity” because it is not clear that a constitutional right has been violated. In other instances, as in the St. Louis case, judges ruled the officers did not use unreasonable force.
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