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.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Rejects Another Questionable Qualified Immunity Decision By An Appeals Court”

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27 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'You can't kill yourself, that's our job!'

Delightful, the victim might be trying to kill himself so half a dozen cops come in to show him how to really murder a person.

The fact that this reached no less than the US Supreme Court and they had to kick it back down to tell the court to try again just serves as more evidence that QI is a legal abomination that should never have been created and needs to be killed off in it’s entirety as soon as possible. Half a dozen cops should not be able to escape what should be murder charges just because they claim that they didn’t know that pinning someone to the ground while they’re already handcuffed and applying so much pressure that they can’t breathe is a bad thing or not acceptable behavior.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
K`Tetch (profile) says:

Better idea

If they want to try that path, and claimed that body survival spasms are actually resistance, then how about a test.

Anyone wanting to claim immunity in this case has to submit to the same handling, and NOT RESIST. I mean, they’ve no incentive to resist, do they?

If they’re still alive at the end of the 15 minutes and haven’t resisted, then yes, they get their qualified immunity, if not, they don’t. Bet with that standard, you’ll suddenly find a lot less claims of QI being made…

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Better idea

Exactly.

It’s amazing how many things they think are normal, and couldn’t possibly be thought of or them realise it would be dangerous, or infringing if they’re doing it to others, but if it’s done to them, it’s suddenly assault, and an imminent deadly threat that needs responding with lethal force.

Best example is ‘tazer use’. You ask most cops and they’ll say tazers are safe, and they know that because they have been hit with one. And you see footage of them experiencing it, and they get to prepare for it, work themselves up, get it when they’re ready, in the chest, and have two other guys ready to catch them and lower them slowly to the floor. It’s not all of a sudden whap in the back, and you’re freaking out, and muscles are spasming as you weren’t expecting it, and that is ‘resistance’, and you’re hit again, etc.
And the cops know this.
Thats why last year, the cops shot Rayshard Brooks, because it’s ‘minimal safe, and injury free’ when its a cop weilding it on someone (because then they get QI) but anyone else it’s the reality of a dangerous, pretty lethal torture device.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Upstream (profile) says:

The Supreme Court appears to be continuing to make amends for the mess it’s made of qualified immunity over the years.

But are they really?

If they were serious about reforming or eliminating the abomination that they created, they could do it, quickly and easily, by ruling that it is a clear violation of the "equal protection" clause. (Or the prohibition of nobility, or "reasonableness," or whatever. I am sure they could come up with plenty of rationale, and probably even save face at the same time.) It would be gone. Done. And it would jerk a serious and long overdue knot in the chain of law enforcement.

But that is not what is happening. What is happening looks to me much more like throwing a bone to a starving dog or kicking the can down the road. It gives the impression of "doing something" while not actually accomplishing a damn thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If they were serious about reforming or eliminating the abomination that they created, they could do it, quickly and easily, by ruling that it is a clear violation of the "equal protection" clause. (Or the prohibition of nobility, or "reasonableness," or whatever. I am sure they could come up with plenty of rationale, and probably even save face at the same time.)

Remember that the Constitution, in theory, only grants power. They don’t have to find some reason why it’s disallowed; they can just say that nothing says cops are above the law.

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restless94110 (profile) says:

One Thing

If the guy had not resisted, the guy would not have been restrained. Who’s fault is that? The guy’s.

Do not resist arrest and detainment. Live to see another day.

Without qualified immunity there is no law and order.

If we are going to cancel qualified immunity, cancel it for all judges, prosecutors, politicians and do it immediately. As it is now these cretins enjoy super immunity from law suits, yet quite a few of them are screaming like hysterics for the removal of qualified immunity from the cops.

Why would anyone go into law enforcement, if they can be sued at any time by anybody?

The answer is: nobody would.

There you go: be careful of what you wish for. You just might get it.

Meanwhile, do not resist being arrested or detained.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: One Thing

He wasn’t resisting, you jackbooted murder-porn festishist chud.

Now, before you try and convince yourself some more that you really do enjoy deep-throating that side-handle-baton and that if you show pleasure they’ll stop; let’s just look at what the court document actually said, eh?

Bear in mind, this is what the police claim.

"Gilbert was cooperative throughout the booking process and checked “no” to a question asking whether he had a medical condition of which the officers should be aware. While Gilbert was in the cell, the officers observed him engaging in unusual behavior, including waving his hands in the air, rattling the bars of his cell, throwing his shoe, and bobbing up and down. Officer Jason King then observed Gilbert tie an article of clothing around the bars of his cell and his neck. Officer King stated out loud that Gilbert appeared to be trying to hang himself. After overhearing Officer King’s statement, Officer Joe Stuckey entered Gilbert’s cell but found Gilbert without any clothing tied to his neck. Officer Stuckey cuffed Gilbert’s left wrist but before he could cuff Gilbert’s right wrist, Gilbert began to struggle with Officer Stuckey as well as Officer Ronald DeGregorio and Sergeant Ronald Bergmann, who had entered the cell after Officer Stuckey."

Notice that phrasing. "stated out loud that Gilbert appeared to be trying to hang himself". Might as well start shouting ‘stop resisting’ at that point. Also, funnily enough, no video footage, which would probably have shown that most of these claims were fictional. Then, based on the unsubstatiated claim of an officer that had already been demonstrated to be a lie, they decided to do an illegal additional restraint without any neccesity. They’re putting shackles on him in a cell, based on a claim that they already know is bullshit. Who wouldn’t be resisting at that point.
it’s literally the sort of action that Judd Nelson’s Sheriff character lampoons in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) – "The hell with this. Let’s go back to the station house, and cornhole us a drunk."
That people in a cell are to be toyed with, fucked around with, or otherwise messed about for the perverse amusement of the officers, perhaps to excite people who get off on that sort of thing, even vicariously – people such as your statement make you out to be.

Bullies don’t care how much you suck up to them though, they’ll stick pick on you just the same, if there’s noone else to pick on. The sooner you learn that, the sooner you might have some self respect.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: One Thing

Why would anyone go into law enforcement, if they can be sued at any time by anybody?

What the fuck do I care? They can fuck off and find some other kind of employment that pays what a cop makes with their GED’s in hand. Let them fucking try, I say. See how well their life goes flipping burgers or manning a cash register for shit pay.

They chose their careers freely, and as such, can fuck off freely as far as I’m concerned.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

If the guy had not resisted, the guy would not have been restrained. Who’s fault is that? The guy’s.

Do not resist arrest and detainment. Live to see another day.

Can you point out where in the law it states that a) resisting arrest carries the death penalty, and b) police officers are empowered to act as judge, jury, and executioner?

This isn’t Mega-City One, and the police aren’t Street Judges.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Honestly

"I’ll admit my familiarity with Judge Dredd is limited, but as I understand it, he may be brutal, but he also despises corruption and abuse of the law."

Well, yeah. He’ll send you for a year’s stint in the cubes for petty fencing but another Judge doing the same? Twenty years hard labor on Titan.

Restless94110 isn’t advocating Judge Dredd. He’s advocating that the badge gives immunity and the citizenry should be happy the jackboot on their face has been polished well.

Anonymous Coward says:

so, out of curiosity, just how many ‘qualified immunity’ cases must the Supreme Court reject before a ‘presidence’ is set? just because someone wears a uniform it shouldn’t give them open season on committing crimes and shouldn’t prevent them from being treated and punished like every other criminal!

Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re:

According to the SCOTUS current view of QI, it must make a new decision for each and every possible way a cop might violate someone’s rights, specifying every conceivable detail in each and every case. This would obviously be an infinite number of decisions, which is clearly an impossible task.

Which is precisely what is wrong with the whole QI situation as it currently stands.

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