Days after Derek Chauvin was sentenced for murdering George Floyd by kneeling on him until he died, the Supreme Court vacated a ruling in Lombardo v. City of St. Louis that had said officers acted reasonably when engaging in similar behavior.
In a 6-3 decision, the court granted certiorari and told a lower court to take another look at the case brought by the parents of Nicholas Gilbert, who died in a St. Louis prison after being restrained by multiple officers who had him face down with pressure applied to his back and torso for 15 minutes. The Supreme Court said that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals failed to fully examine the situation.
“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,” the court said. “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.”
The court’s ruling said that the court of appeals cited a case that said use of a “prone restraint” was “not objectively unreasonable” if the detainee was actively resisting. In this case, Gilbert struggled throughout an encounter with several officers that began after one believed Gilbert was trying to hang himself.
According to the court, three officers tried to subdue and handcuff Gilbert, who was 5’3″ and 160 pounds. Gilbert resisted and tried to get away, and the officers forced him to kneel. Gilbert kicked the officers, who called for backup. Eventually, six officers were in the cell with Gilbert, who at that point was in handcuffs and leg restraints. The officers then placed Gilbert in a prone position, face on the floor, with three officers holding him down at the biceps, shoulders, and legs, with at least one officer putting pressure on his back.
Gilbert said, “‘It hurts. Stop,” and continued to struggle, his parents claimed, and after 15 minutes he stopped moving. The officers rolled him over, performed CPR after failing to detect a pulse, and then an ambulance took him to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Circuit’s error was that while they relied on precedent that said using a prone position was not necessarily unreasonable, they ignored facts such as the duration of the hold, the use of cuffs and shackles before the hold was employed, and instructions given to St. Louis officers that warned that pressure on a prone person’s back could cause suffocation.
The Supreme Court also pointed to police guidance that said subjects on their stomachs should be lifted after being handcuffed to avoid suffocation, and that a subject who struggles in that position could be reacting to oxygen loss and not trying to disobey officers.
Ultimately, the court did not say that these other factors meant that the officers acted improperly, but said the lower court should reexamine the case while keeping those facts in mind.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Alito wrote that the Eighth Circuit properly followed the legal standard for reviewing the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the officers. He said that the majority “unfairly” interpreted the circuit court’s decision and added that the Supreme Court should have either let the ruling stand or fully heard and decided the real issue, which was whether the relevant legal standard could support summary judgment.
“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.”