WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday overturned a lower court ruling in a case over whether St. Louis police used excessive force against a man who died after officers handcuffed him and put everything on him the weight on the back during a confrontation in a prison cell.
In an unsigned opinion that drew dissent from three conservative justices, the court returned the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit for further consideration.
Police arrested 27-year-old homeless Nicholas Gilbert in 2015 on suspicion of trespassing and not appearing in court for a traffic ticket. Following a fight inside the facility where Gilbert was booked, he was handcuffed and shackled as six police officers used their weights to restrain him. Gilbert died during the altercation.
The case, filed in the Supreme Court in September, came at a time of heightened tension between police and communities of color following high-profile incidents in which black people were killed while interacting with people of color. agents. Gilbert was white, although his parents noted the similarities between their son’s death and that of George Floyd, the black man killed by Minneapolis police in 2020.
The majority said it was not clear whether the appeals court believed the use of a stomach restraint was still constitutional if a person appeared to resist officers. He either failed to consider or thought of trivial evidence such as departmental directives ordering officers to remove a subject from his stomach as soon as he is handcuffed due to the risk of suffocation, the majority said.
“Having failed to analyze this evidence or characterized it as insignificant, the court’s opinion could be interpreted as treating Gilbert’s ‘continued resistance’ as a matter of control in law,” said the majority opinion. “Such a rule in itself would violate the careful and context-specific analysis required by this tribunal’s excessive force precedent.”
Associate Judge Samuel Alito, joined by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, opposed the court ruling and said the majority were dodging the issue in the case.
“This course of action may be practical for this tribunal, but it is unfair for the Court of Appeal,” wrote Alito. “If we expect lower courts to respect our decisions, we should not distort their opinions to make our job easier.
Last month marked the one year anniversary of Floyd’s murder, an incident that has reignited a nationwide debate about the police.
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The Supreme Court took an unusually long time to decide whether or not to hear the case, postponing it for consideration more than a dozen times.
Lawyers for family and civil rights groups wanted the court to set a standard on whether applying weights to a suspect’s back while handcuffed and shackled is excessive force. If the judges had done this, the practical result would have been that victims and families would have an easier time bringing civil lawsuits against the police after such incidents.
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A medical examiner found that Gilbert’s cause of death was heart disease, exacerbated by methamphetamine and coercion, court records show. Police involved in the incident said Gilbert was acting “strangely” and said they intervened because he appeared to be tying clothes around his own neck.
Gilbert’s family produced an expert report who discovered Gilbert’s death was caused by asphyxiation.
His family pointed to a 1995 Justice Department bulletin encouraging local police to remove suspects from their bellies once they are handcuffed to avoid the risk of suffocation. The notice also discouraged police from sitting on the back of a suspect.
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The 8th Circuit has ruled against Gilbert’s family, creating a rift between how appellate courts across the country view the practice. Other circuits concluded that no “reasonable officer” would put pressure on a suspect’s back after the person was restrained with handcuffs and ankle ties.
The 8th Circuit highlighted Gilbert’s “extensive” heart disease, resistance, and the “large amount of methamphetamine” in his system.
“Gilbert’s resistance while lying down was in fact an attempt to breathe and an attempt to tell the officers they were harming him,” the appeals court wrote in its opinion last year. . “However, under the circumstances, the officers could reasonably have interpreted such conduct as continued resistance.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court Asks Lower Court to Reconsider Case of Excessive Force