U.S. Supreme Court

8th Circuit must reconsider case of shackled inmate who died after prone restraint, SCOTUS says

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday told a federal appeals court to take another look at a case of an inmate who died after correctional officers applied pressure to his back while he lay shackled on the floor.

In a summary, per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court vacated a decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis finding that officers did not use excessive force. Three justices—Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch—would have agreed to hear the case. They claimed that the high court had taken the “easy out” by its remand.

The inmate, Nicholas Gilbert, had been arrested in December 2015 for trespassing in a condemned building and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket. According to the suit filed by Gilbert’s parents, his encounter with correctional officers began when an officer saw Gilbert apparently trying to hang himself by tying a piece of clothing to his cell bars.

Here is the Supreme Court’s description of what happened next, recounting the facts in the light most favorable to Gilbert’s parents:

“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.”

More officers responded and two original officers left, leaving six officers in the cell with Gilbert, who was handcuffed and in leg irons.

“The officers moved Gilbert to a prone position, face down on the floor,” the Supreme Court said. “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.”

Officers tried to revive Gilbert, to no avail. He was transported to the hospital and pronounced dead.

In considering the excessive force claim filed by Gilbert’s parents, the 8th Circuit considered the factors established in 2015 by the Supreme Court in the case of pretrial detainee Michael Kingsley, who had claimed that jail officers used excessive force when they used a stun gun on him. That case was Kingsley v. Hendrickson.

“Although the 8th Circuit cited the Kingsley factors, it is unclear whether the court thought the use of a prone restraint—no matter the kind, intensity, duration or surrounding circumstances—is per se constitutional so long as an individual appears to resist officers’ efforts to subdue him,” the Supreme Court said.

The Supreme Court said it wasn’t taking a position on whether the officers’ use of force was constitutionally excessive and, if so, whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the right to be free of such force was clearly established. Rather, the Supreme Court said it was directing the appeals court “to employ an inquiry that clearly attends to the facts and circumstances” of Gilbert’s death.

Alito wrote the dissent, joined by Thomas and Gorsuch. Alito argued that the 8th Circuit had applied the correct standard for excessive force claims and clearly held that the use of force was reasonable. But the Supreme Court claimed to be uncertain about the standard used and remanded, they said.

“This course of action may be convenient for this court, but it is unfair to the court of appeals,” Alito wrote. “If we expect the lower courts to respect our decisions, we should not twist their opinions to make our job easier.”

The Supreme Court justices should grant review, “roll up our sleeves, and decide the real issue”—whether the record supports summary judgment for the officers, Alito said.

The case is Lombardo v. City of St. Louis.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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