He Died After Cops Shackled Him and Held Him Facedown. A Court Said That Was Constitutional. SCOTUS Isn’t So Sure.
In December of 2015, Nicholas Gilbert died in a cell at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD). A lawsuit filed by his parents was dismissed by two federal courts, thrown out before mother Jody Lombardo and father Brian Gilbert could make their case before a jury.
The Supreme Court revived it yesterday, writing that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit failed to properly assess the constitutionality of the officers’ use of the prone restraint, kneeling on Gilbert’s back as he lay shackled on the ground.
The move is part of a recent willingness by the Court to push back against myopic decisions in qualified immunity and excessive force suits. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri first awarded the SLMPD officers qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that allows government officials to violate your rights without fear of civil accountability unless the manner in which the state allegedly misbehaved has been explicitly deemed unconstitutional in a prior court ruling.
The protections have recently been extended to a group of cops that threw explosives into an innocent, 78-year-old man’s house during a botched SWAT raid; a cop who killed a man who had been sleeping in his car; and four cops who assaulted a man they’d pulled over for broken lights. Without a court precedent with near-identical facts, the victims were not permitted to sue for damages.
Last year, the 8th Circuit scaled back even further, ruling that the officers in St. Louis committed no constitutional violation when 10 of them sought to subdue Gilbert, shackling him and holding him in a prone position. He later died at a nearby hospital.
On December 8, 2015, Gilbert was booked for trespassing in a condemned building and failing to appear in court for a traffic violation. After he had been placed in a cell, an officer noticed him tie one end of a piece of clothing around the bars and the other end around his neck. Though no such clothing was in sight when three cops came to help, they attempted to restrain Gilbert, who was 5’3″ and weighed 160 pounds. A struggle ensued, and they put his legs in shackles.
“Several more officers responded. They relieved two of the original three officers, leaving six of
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