Parents of St. Louis man killed in police custody return to the court

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Petitions of the week
A courier drops off a package at the Supreme Court

The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court issued an unsigned decision instructing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit to reconsider whether police in St. Louis, Missouri, used unconstitutionally excessive force when they knelt on the back of Nicholas Gilbert for 15 minutes until he suffocated. This week, we highlight cert petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether the 8th Circuit ignored that decision in granting qualified immunity to the officers.

Gilbert was arrested in 2015. After he allegedly suffered a mental-health crisis and tried to harm himself in jail, multiple officers entered his cell to subdue him. When Gilbert resisted violently, the officers handcuffed his hands and legs and restrained him on his stomach on the ground – known as a “prone restraint.” The officers continued applying pressure against Gilbert’s back while he struggled and audibly asked the officers to stop because he was in pain. After 15 minutes, Gilbert stopped breathing.

His parents sued the city, arguing that the officers had used excessive force against their son in violation of the Constitution. The district court ruled for the officers, and the 8th Circuit affirmed. Police did not use excessive force, the appeals court concluded, because under circuit precedent a prone restraint is not “objectively unreasonable when a detainee actively resists” – in this case, Gilbert’s initial thrashing and his continued efforts to lift his chest to breathe.

Gilbert’s parents appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled for them in part. The “objectively unreasonable” test for excessive force is contextual and fact-specific, the justices held. They sent the case back with instructions to consider a few significant facts: that police had already handcuffed Gilbert’s arms and shackled his legs before restraining him, that they knelt on him for so long, and that they chose the prone restraint despite city and nationwide guidance against its use on someone in handcuffs because of the risk of suffocation.

On remand, the 8th Circuit again ruled for the officers. Rather than perform the requested factual analysis, the court granted the officers qualified immunity because – in light of a newer circuit ruling and the “lack of robust consensus” to the contrary – it found there was no clearly established constitutional right for a person resisting police restraint to be free of force against their back.

In Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, Gilbert’s parents ask the justices to take up their son’s case once more. They argue that the 8th Circuit defies a mounting consensus among other circuits that similar police force is excessive in violation of a clearly established right. A decision from the Supreme Court would settle not only their son’s case, they insist, but also countless others throughout the 8th Circuit – stretching, they note, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, the hometowns of Michael Brown and George Floyd.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Chestnut v. Allen
22-490
Issue: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit violated 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) limitations and needlessly overturned a state death sentence on an insubstantial premise that respondent’s mental health evidence was not afforded “meaningful consideration and effect” when the judge stated at sentencing that he had considered all the mental health evidence but did not explicitly reference respondent’s eating disorder.

Alonzo v. Schwab
22-501
Issue: Whether the 14th Amendment prohibits intentional racial discrimination in redistricting where the minority voters discriminated against are not sufficiently numerous to form a majority of eligible voters in a single-member district.

Spring Valley Produce v. Forrest
22-502
Issue: Whether a debtor in bankruptcy may discharge liability for unlawfully violating a nonsegregated statutory trust.

Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, Missouri
22-510
Issue: Whether, when officers put a handcuffed and shackled person face-down on the floor and pushed into his back until he died, they are they entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law because the person struggled to breathe before dying.

Geddes v. Webber County, Utah
22-513
Issues: (1) Whether the test of objective reasonableness applicable to a claim of excessive force enunciated by the court in Kingsley v. Hendrickson (decided under the 14th Amendment) is the same standard as the test of objective reasonableness enunciated by the court in Graham v. Connor (decided under the Fourth Amendment) as applied to the specific circumstances presented in the context of an individual being held in a detention facility; and (2) whether, under Kingsley, the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment against use of objectively unreasonable force end and those afforded by the 14th Amendment begin no later than the point at which custody has been relinquished by an arresting officer to a detention facility.



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