United States Supreme Court rejects excessive force decision in loss of police

Demonstrators clash with police while protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis policeman Jason Stockley on September 16, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri.

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The United States Supreme Court on Monday revived a lawsuit brought by the parents of a homeless man who died in Missouri custody, which accused police officers of using excessive force moments before the death of their son handcuffed and shackled in a cell.

The judges, in an unsigned ruling, overturned a lower court ruling in favor of the police that found excessive force had not been used, meaning the trial was over. Nicholas Gilbert, 27, died in 2015 in a St. Louis police holding cell after six officers immobilized him for 15 minutes, handcuffed him, shackled his legs and placed him face down on the ground .

Supreme Court ruling said St. Louis-based 8th US Court of Appeals did not clearly consider whether police use of “stomach restraint” was constitutional and asked the lower court to reconsider the matter. The civil rights lawsuit filed by Bryan Gilbert and Jody Lombardo accused officers of violating 4th Amendment protections in the U.S. Constitution against illegal searches and seizures.

Commonly used police guidelines alert officers to the risk of choking and “indicate that a suspect’s difficulties in lying down may be due to lack of oxygen” rather than resistance, the Supreme Court said.

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch opposed the ruling.

The officers had invoked a legal doctrine called qualified immunity that protects police and other types of government officials from civil suit in certain circumstances. This defense allows officers to avoid liability in cases of excessive force if they can demonstrate that they did not know that their conduct was already “clearly established” to be illegal.

There is an ongoing debate in the United States over the use of force by police, particularly after the May 2020 death of a man named George Floyd in custody in Minneapolis sparked protests in many many cities in the United States and abroad against racism and police brutality. Like Gilbert, Floyd died after being forcibly detained by police. Floyd was black and Gilbert was white.

Gilbert was arrested by police for several reasons, including failing to appear in court for a traffic violation.

Police described Gilbert as suicidal and said they were trying to stop him from killing himself. Police said Gilbert continued to resist even after being handcuffed and shackled and that at one point six officers were in the cell trying to subdue him, his family lawyers said. Officers said they did not put pressure on Gilbert’s neck.

An autopsy concluded that Gilbert had methamphetamines in his system and was suffering from heart disease. The autopsy cause of death listed “forced duress” as a factor.

After Gilbert’s parents filed a lawsuit in 2016, officers argued the qualified immunity defense. In 2019, a federal judge ruled that excessive force had been used but officers were not told their conduct was unconstitutional. Therefore, the officers received qualified immunity.

In the Floyd case, Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin was convicted in April of murder and was sentenced last week to 22.5 years in prison. In Washington, lawmakers are considering legislation on police reform.

In May 2020, Reuters released an investigation that revealed how qualified immunity, along with continual improvements from the Supreme Court, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.

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