Days after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced for the murder of George Floyd, SCOTUS vacated a ruling in a similar case in Lombardo v. City of St. Louis that held that officers used reasonable force when using similar restraints against a prisoner that ultimately led to his demise.
The Supreme Court ruled to vacate the decision made by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming they failed to fully examine the situation. Now, they are sending the case of Nicholas Gilbert back to the lower courts.
Nicholas Gilbert’s parents sued the City of St. Louis after their son died while being restrained by multiple officers in a St. Louis prison. According to a Fox News report, officers pinned Gilbert face down with pressure on his back and torso for 15 minutes after officers believed he was attempting to hang himself.
“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 Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals had apparently cited a case in their decision that ruled that prone restraint was not “objectively unreasonable” if the detainee was resisting.
Gilbert apparently struggled against officers and kicked at them when they tried to handcuff him. Six officers entered the cell to eventually subdue Gilbert, and apparently pinned him after handcuffing him and putting him in leg restraints.
Gilbert said, “‘It hurts. Stop,” his parents claimed, and after 15 minutes he stopped moving. The officers performed CPR after failing to detect a pulse, and then an ambulance took him to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
In the 6-3 ruling to vacate, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Circuit’s error was that while they relied on a precedent while ignoring facts such as the duration of the hold, and the use of cuffs and shackles before the hold was applied. The court also ignored 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 guidelines that said subjects on their stomachs should be lifted after being handcuffed to prevent suffocation, and that if a subject continues to struggle, it could be a physical reaction to oxygen depletion and not an attempt to resist officers.
Justice Samuel Alito, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.
Alito wrote that the lower court made a decision with a fair legal standard and that the Supreme Court should either have let the ruling stand or decide the real issue.
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.”