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U.S. Supreme Court: Police Excessive Force Death Illegal

Lombardo v. St. Louis Docket: 20-391, Opinion Date: June 28, 2021. Officers arrested Gilbert for trespassing, took him to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and placed him in a holding cell. An officer saw Gilbert tie a piece of clothing around the cell bars and put it around his neck, in an apparent suicide attempt. Three officers entered Gilbert’s cell, eventually brought Gilbert to a kneeling position over a concrete bench and handcuffed his arms behind his back. Gilbert kicked the officers and hit his head on the bench. They shackled his legs. Six officers moved Gilbert to a prone position, face down on the floor. Three officers held Gilbert down at the shoulders, biceps, and legs; at least one placed pressure on Gilbert’s back and torso. Gilbert tried to raise his chest, saying, “'It hurts. Stop.’” After 15 minutes of struggling, Gilbert’s breathing became abnormal; he stopped moving. The officers rolled Gilbert onto his back and found no pulse; they performed chest compressions and rescue breathing. An ambulance transported Gilbert to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. In an “excessive force” suit, the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the officers. The Supreme Court vacated. The excessive force inquiry requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including 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 by the officer to limit the amount of force; the severity of the underlying security problem; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting. Here, the court either failed to analyze or found insignificant, details such as that Gilbert was already handcuffed and shackled when placed in the prone position, that officers kept him in that position for 15 minutes, and that St. Louis instructs its officers that pressing down on the back of a prone subject can cause suffocation. The lower court’s opinion could be read to treat Gilbert’s “ongoing resistance” as controlling as a matter of law. Such a per se rule would contravene the careful, context-specific analysis required by precedent.

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