Supreme Court Revives Excessive-Force Suit Over Missouri Man’s Police Custody Death

By Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'
June 28, 2021 Updated: June 28, 2021

The Supreme Court on June 28 vacated a lower court ruling in favor of police in an excessive-force case, effectively reviving a lawsuit brought by the parents of a Missouri man who died after being restrained in a holding cell.

In an unsigned summary decision (pdf) in the case of Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, the high court didn’t express a view on whether excessive force was used, but vacated a judgment by the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “to give the court the opportunity to employ an inquiry that clearly attends to the facts and circumstances” around the death of Nicholas Gilbert, who died in 2015 after six officers restrained him when he acted violently.

Gilbert was arrested by police on several grounds, including failing to appear in court for a traffic violation. Police described Gilbert as suicidal and said they were trying to prevent him from taking his own life. Police said Gilbert continued to resist even after he was handcuffed and shackled, and at one point, six officers were in the cell trying to subdue him, according to lawyers for his family. The officers said they didn’t exert pressure on Gilbert’s neck.

An autopsy concluded that Gilbert had methamphetamines in his system and suffered from heart disease. The autopsy’s cause of death listed “forcible restraint” as a factor.

After Gilbert’s parents sued in 2016, the officers asserted the qualified immunity defense. In 2019, a federal judge found that excessive force had been used but that the officers weren’t on notice that their conduct was unconstitutional. Therefore, the officers received qualified immunity.

But in weighing the case, the Supreme Court found that the lower court hadn’t analyzed thoroughly enough whether the police use of a “prone restraint” was constitutional in the case of Gilbert, citing precedent that “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.”

“Gilbert was already handcuffed and leg shackled when officers move him to the prone position,” the high court noted, adding that “officers kept him in that position for 15 minutes.”

Other details the high court cited include evidence that officers put pressure on Gilbert’s back, even though St. Louis instructs its officers that the technique can cause suffocation when applied to a prone detainee.

“Such details could matter when deciding whether to grant summary judgment on an excessive force claim,” the Supreme Court said.

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch dissented from the decision, arguing that the appeals court “applied the correct legal standard and made a judgment call on a sensitive question,” adding that they would have preferred the Supreme Court to hear the case on its merits rather than kick it back to the lower court.

“The Court, unfortunately, is unwilling to face up to the choice between denying the petition (and bearing the criticism that would inevitably elicit) and granting plenary review (and doing the work that would entail),” the dissenting judges wrote.

“Instead, it claims to be uncertain whether the Court of Appeals actually applied the correct legal standard, and for that reason, it vacates the judgment and remands the case.

“This course of action may be convenient for this Court, but it is unfair to the Court of Appeals.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'