Supreme Court Rejects Another Questionable Qualified Immunity Decision By An Appeals Court
from the SCOTUS-plays-another-round-of-QI-hot-potato dept
The Supreme Court appears to be continuing to make amends for the mess it’s made of qualified immunity over the years. Having tilted the playing field so far in favor of law enforcement even appeals court judges started making audible noise about the injustices encouraged by this doctrine, the Supreme Court seems to be trying to make things a bit more level.
Within the past eight months, the nation’s top court has reversed two cases in which qualified immunity was granted to law enforcement officers. Both cases came from the Fifth Circuit — the circuit that most often finds in favor of officers in civil rights lawsuits.
Its most recent reversal adds the Eighth Circuit to the list of appellate courts the slightly-more-woke Supreme Court has asked to reconsider a qualified immunity decision. (h/t Mark Joseph Stern)
Like the two decisions sent back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, this reversal comes from the Supreme Court’s “shadow” docket. No separate opinion was released. Instead, the short reversal is contained in court’s most recent disposition list, which is mostly made up of cases granted or denied an opportunity to be heard by the nation’s top court.
The case deals with six St. Louis police officers who killed a man they had just arrested by pinning him in a prone position while he was already shackled. Nicholas Gilbert was arrested for trespassing and for failing to appear in court for an outstanding traffic ticket. While in the holding cell, Gilbert began behaving erratically. One officer claimed to see Gilbert trying to craft a makeshift noose out of an article of clothing.
Three officers entered the cell and attempted to restrain Gilbert. The combative Gilbert tried to kick the cops but ended up doing nothing more than injuring his own head on the concrete bench. The struggle continued and more officers entered. A couple of officers left, claiming they felt winded from the struggle.
Shortly after this, officers managed to cuff Gilbert and shackle his legs. They placed him in a prone position and three officers put their weight on Gilbert’s 5’3″ 160-pound body. Eventually Gilbert stopped struggling because he was dying. This is from the Eighth Circuit’s affirmation of the district court’s decision in favor of the officers.
After fifteen minutes of struggle in the prone position, Gilbert stopped resisting and the officers rolled him from his stomach onto his side. By this point, each of the named officers had participated in the effort to physically control Gilbert.
At some point while in the prone position, Gilbert had stopped breathing. Officer Mack rolled Gilbert onto his back and initially found a pulse in his neck but eventually was unable to find one. Gilbert was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The Eighth Circuit Court said there was no excessive force and qualified immunity was granted to all officers involved.
The Supreme Court [PDF] says this is the wrong conclusion. And its depiction of the events is a bit more disturbing than the summary written by the Appeals Court, which doesn’t include this part:
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.’”
The Supreme Court says the Appeals Court was too hasty and overlooked too many details when coming to the conclusion the force used in this case wasn’t excessive.
Although the Eighth Circuit cited the Kingsley factors, it is unclear whether the court thought the use of a prone restraint—no matter the kind, intensity, duration, or surrounding circumstances—is per se constitutional so long as an individual appears to resist officers’ efforts to subdue him. The court cited Circuit precedent for the proposition that “the use of prone restraint is not objectively unreasonable when a detainee actively resists officer directives and efforts to subdue the detainee.” 956 F. 3d, at 1013. The court went on to describe as “insignificant” facts that may distinguish that precedent and appear potentially important under Kingsley, including that Gilbert was already handcuffed and leg shackled when officers moved him to the prone position and that officers kept him in that position for 15 minutes.
The Appeals Court could only reach this conclusion by deciding important facts were actually “insignificant.” To the contrary, says the Supreme Court. These facts are, in fact, very significant.
Such details could matter when deciding whether to grant summary judgment on an excessive force claim. Here, for example, record evidence (viewed in the light most favorable to Gilbert’s parents) shows that officers placed pressure on Gilbert’s back even though St. Louis instructs its officers that pressing down on the back of a prone subject can cause suffocation. The evidentiary record also includes well-known police guidance recommending that officers get a subject off his stomach as soon as he is handcuffed because of that risk. The guidance further indicates that the struggles of a prone suspect may be due to oxygen deficiency, rather than a desire to disobey officers’ commands. 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 relationship 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’s “ongoing resistance” as controlling as a matter of law. Such a per se rule would contravene the careful, context-specific analysis required by this Court’s excessive force precedent
The Supreme Court says it has no opinion to offer on the constitutionality of the force used in this case. But it does say the current decision can’t stand. The Appeals Court needs to examine the facts more closely, rather than simply decide some crucial facts aren’t worth paying attention to.