Supreme Court Summarily Reverses Against Officers in Qualified Immunity Case

Supreme Court Summarily Reverses Against Officers in Qualified Immunity Case

In a per curiam decision, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Eighth Circuit’s grant of qualified immunity in Lombardo v. City of St. Louis.  While the majority’s decision to reverse left a lot to still be decided, the case may be indicative of the Supreme Court’s attempt to signal to lower courts that qualified immunity is less protective than some courts are currently applying it.  Alternatively, perhaps Justice Alito is right in his dissent that the majority did not want to face criticism for denying the petition.

This case involved an in-custody death of a prisoner, Nicholas Gilbert, while he was at the St. Louis police department’s central station.  Three officers responded to Gilbert’s cell after they saw him attempt to hang himself.  They attempted to subdue Gilbert, who was 5’3 and weighed 160 lbs., and a struggle ensued.  The three officers brought him to a kneeling position, handcuffed his arms behind his back, at which point he continued to struggle, kicked the officers, and hit his head against a bench.  They called for additional help.  The officers then shackled Gilbert’s legs together (his hands were already cuffed behind his back).  Six officers stayed in the cell and moved Gilbert to a prone position, face down and three officers pinned him down for 15 minutes while he continued to struggle.  His breathing became abnormal and the officers rolled him onto his back and performed CPR.  He was then taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Gilbert’s parents sued, claiming excessive force.  The Eighth Circuit concluded the officers did not use unconstitutional excessive force under Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U. S. 389 (2015).  In Kingsley, the Supreme Court set forth factors courts should weigh in the custodial context in reviewing excessive force claims, 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 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 plaintiff was actively resisting.”

In reversing, the Supreme Court indicated it was “unclear” whether the Eighth Circuit had come up with a rule that the use of prone restraint would be per se constitutional, so long as the detainee is resisting the officers.  The majority noted the fact that Gilbert was restrained with handcuffs and leg shackles and the duration of time (15 minutes) that he was in the prone position were both details that mattered when deciding an excessive force claim and were not “insignificant” as the Eighth Circuit had noted.  Although the Court ultimately expressed no opinion as to whether the officers used excessive force in this case and instead remanded the case to the Eighth Circuit, the Court did note that a per se rule that would treat “ongoing resistance” as controlling as a matter of law without weighing the other factors would “contravene the careful, context-specific analysis required by th[e] Court’s excessive force precedent.”

Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch dissented, indicating they would have granted the petition and “roll[ed] up [their] sleeves, and decide[d] the real issue.”  Instead, they accuse the majority of taking “convenient” action and “twist[ing] [the lower courts’] opinions to make [its] job easier.”   Essentially, the dissent accuses the majority of having it both ways: avoiding the public backlash for denying a high-profile qualified immunity case from its docket while not digging into the case and reviewing merits briefing and arguments. The dissent also indicates they do not read the Eighth Circuit’s decision the same way as the majority and would not have read a per se rule into that decision.

To read the Court’s decision, click here.

Ultimately, what this means is the Eighth Circuit will have another chance to review this high-profile case and it may make its way back up to the Supreme Court in another couple of years.  It also is the second per curiam reversal in a qualified immunity case that went against the police officers this term.