In Lombardo v. St. Louis,[i] the United States Supreme Court considered decisions by a Federal District Court as well as the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and overturned the lower courts’ decisions to dismiss the lawsuit. The United States Supreme Court laid out the facts of the case as follows:
On the afternoon of December 8, 2015, St. Louis police officers arrested Nicholas Gilbert for trespassing in a condemned building and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket. Officers brought him to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s central station and placed him in a holding cell. At some point, an officer saw Gilbert tie a piece of clothing around the bars of his cell and put it around his neck, in an apparent attempt to hang himself. 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. Emergency medical services personnel were phoned for assistance.
Several more officers responded. They relieved two of the original three officers, leaving six officers in the cell with Gilbert, who was now handcuffed and in leg irons. The officers moved Gilbert to a prone position, face down on the floor. 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.’” Lombardo v. Saint Louis City, 361 F. Supp. 3d 882, 898 (ED Mo. 2019).
After 15 minutes of struggling in this position, Gilbert’s breathing became abnormal and he stopped moving. The officers rolled Gilbert onto his side and then his back to check for a pulse. Finding none, they performed chest compressions and rescue breathing. An ambulance eventually transported Gilbert to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Gilbert’s parents sued, alleging that the officers had used excessive force against him. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the officers, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the incident. Id., at 895. The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed on different grounds, holding that the officers did not apply unconstitutionally excessive force against Gilbert. 956 F. 3d 1009, 1014 (2020).
The United States Supreme Court, citing Graham v. Connor,[ii] pointed out that when analyzing a claim of excessive force, the courts must determine whether the officers’ actions were objectively reasonable. The Court noted that there is no mechanical application of this standard but instead a court must pay careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case. The Court then outlined circumstances that must be considered,
- The relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used.
- The extent of the plaintiff’s injury.
- Any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force
- The severity of the security problem at issue.
- The threat reasonably perceived by the officer. And,
- Whether the subject was actively resisting
It should be noted that because this particular event occurred in a holding cell, the circumstances for determining objective reasonableness outlined above, are the circumstances considered when the subject is in a custodial setting such as a jail or holding cell but who is not a sentenced prisoner.[iii]
The Court noted that it was unclear if the 8th Circuit thought that the use of the prone restraint was Constitutional irrespective of the type of prone restraint, the intensity of the restraint process, the duration of the prone restraint, or the surrounding circumstances as long as the individual appears to resist the officers’ efforts to subdue him or her.
The Court critiqued the lower court’s finding that some factors such as the fact that Gilbert was already handcuffed and shackled when moved to the prone position and was left in the prone position for 15 minutes, were insignificant. The Court said that these details could be important when deciding to grant summary judgment in favor of the officers on an excessive force claim.
The Court then cited several factors that could be important in the determination of whether an excessive force claim should go forward, including:
- Officers placed pressure on Gilbert’s back even though St. Louis instructs officers that pressing down on the back of a prone subject can cause suffocation.
- Well-known police guidance recommends that officers get a subject off his stomach as soon as he is handcuffed because of the risk of asphyxiation.
- Well-known police guidance indicates that the continued struggling of a prone subject may not be resistance or a desire to disobey officer commands, but instead may be due to oxygen deficiency.
After citing these three items of evidence, the Court wrote:
Such evidence, when considered alongside the duration of the restraint and the fact that Gilbert was handcuffed and leg shackled at the time, may be pertinent to the relation- ship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used, the security problem at issue, and the threat—to both Gilbert and others—reasonably perceived by the officers. Having either failed to analyze such evidence or characterized it as insignificant, the court’s opinion could be read to treat Gilbert resistance” as controlling as a matter of law.
The Court rejected the idea of an automatic rule that would lead to the conclusion that as long as there is resistance, then prone restraint would be Constitutional.
The Court made clear that they had no view as to whether the officers used unconstitutional excessive force or, even if they did, whether Gilbert’s rights to be free from the force used in this case was clearly established at the time. Instead, the Court remanded the case and directed the lower court to employ a more detailed inquiry taking into account the facts and circumstances outlined by the Court to reach their determination.
- The Supreme Court recognized that the failure to get a person off their stomach as soon as they are handcuffed is a factor to consider in a prone restraint death case.
- The Supreme Court recognized that resistance may actually be caused by lack of oxygen (fighting for oxygen) rather than a desire to or conscious non-compliance.
- The duration of prone restraint is a factor to consider in the excessive force analysis.
- The fact that mechanical restraints have been applied is a factor in a prone restraint excessive force analysis.
- There is no automatic rule allowing for prone restraint based on resistance alone.
[i] Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, 594 U.S. ___ (2021). (Slip opinion No. 20-391)
[ii] Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).
[iii] Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015).