SCOTUS Ruled In Favor Of Deceased Homeless Man And Against The City Of St. Louis Police Officers

CITY OF WASHINGTON (June 28, 20211)–today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioner and granted the petition for certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Eighth Circuit, and remanded the case to give “the court the
opportunity to employ an inquiry that clearly attends to the facts and circumstances in answering those questions in the first instance.”

The Facts:

“On the afternoon of December 8, 2015, St. Louis police officers arrested Nicholas Gilbert for trespassing in a condemned building and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket.1 Officers brought him to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s central station and placed him in a holding cell. At some point, an officer saw Gilbert tie a piece of clothing around the bars of his cell and put it around his neck, in an apparent attempt to hang himself.”

“Three officers responded and entered Gilbert’s cell. One grabbed Gilbert’s wrist to handcuff him, but Gilbert evaded the officer and began to struggle. The three officers brought Gilbert, who was 5’3” and 160 pounds, down to a kneeling position over a concrete bench in the cell and handcuffed his arms behind his back. Gilbert reared back, kicking the officers and hitting his head on the bench. After Gilbert kicked one of the officers in the groin, they called for more help and leg shackles. While Gilbert continued to struggle, two officers shackled his legs together. Emergency medical services personnel were phoned for assistance.”

Several more officers responded. They relieved two of the original three officers, leaving six officers in the cell with Gilbert, who was now handcuffed and in leg irons. The officers moved Gilbert to a prone position, face down on the
floor. Three officers held Gilbert’s limbs down at the shoulders, biceps, and legs. At least one other placed pressure
on Gilbert’s back and torso. Gilbert tried to raise his chest, saying, “‘It hurts. Stop.’” 

After 15 minutes of struggling in this position, Gilbert’s breathing became abnormal and he stopped moving. The
officers rolled Gilbert onto his side and then his back to check for a pulse. Finding none, they performed chest compressions and rescue breathing. An ambulance eventually transported Gilbert to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Gilbert’s parents sued, alleging that the officers had used excessive force against him. The District Court granted
summary judgment in favor of the officers, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity because they did
not violate a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the incident. Id., at 895. The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed on different grounds, holding that the officers did not apply unconstitutionally excessive force against Gilbert.

The Court’s Decision

The court cited Circuit precedent for the proposition that “the use of prone restraint is not objectively unreasonable when a detainee actively resists officer directives and efforts to subdue the detainee.”

The court went on to describe as “insignificant” facts that may distinguish that precedent and appear potentially important under Kingsley, including that Gilbert was already handcuffed and leg shackled when officers moved him to the prone position and that officers kept him in that position for 15 minutes.

Such details could matter when deciding whether to grant summary judgment on an excessive force claim. Here, for example, record evidence (viewed in the light most favorable to Gilbert’s parents) 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.

The evidentiary record also includes well-known police guidance recommending that officers get a subject off his stomach as soon as he is handcuffed because of that risk. The guidance further indicates that the struggles of a prone suspect may be due to oxygen deficiency, rather than a desire to disobey officers’ commands.

Such evidence, when considered alongside the duration of the restraint and the fact that Gilbert was handcuffed and
leg shackled at the time, may be pertinent to the relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount
of force used, the security problem at issue, and the threat—to both Gilbert and others—reasonably perceived by the officers. Having either failed to analyze such evidence or characterized it as insignificant, the court’s opinion could be read to treat Gilbert’s “ongoing resistance” as controlling as a matter of law.3 Id., at 1014. Such a per se rule would contravene the careful, context-specific analysis required by this Court’s excessive force precedent. 

We express no view as to whether the officers used unconstitutionally excessive force or, if they did, whether Gilbert’s right to be free of such force in these circumstances was clearly established at the time of his death. We instead grant the petition for certiorari, vacate the judgment of the Eighth Circuit, and remand the case to give the court the
opportunity to employ an inquiry that clearly attends to the facts and circumstances in answering those questions in the first instance.

Read the Court’s entire opinion here.

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