WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday revived claims of excessive force against St. Louis police officers in a case in which a homeless man died after being restrained in handcuffs and leg shackles.
In an unsigned opinion, a majority of the court agreed to send the case back to a lower court for further review. Amid an ongoing national conversation on police practices, however, three justices said their colleagues were taking the “easy out” by not hearing arguments in the case.
The unsigned opinion recounted how officers put the man in a “prone position, face down on the floor” with three officers holding his “limbs down at the shoulders, biceps, and legs” and at least one placing pressure on his back and torso.
Attorneys for the homeless man's parents had argued that the facts of the case mirror the circumstances of the killing of George Floyd, who died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes on a city street. Filmed by a teenage bystander, Floyd's death launched nationwide protests, and Chauvin was sentenced Friday to 22 1/2 years in prison.
St. Louis officials, however, told the justices that the only similarities between the two cases are “drug use and heart disease," saying that their case involved a man under the influence of methamphetamine and that “ little or no force” was applied on his back. An autopsy showed Floyd, who was Black, had drugs in his system and heart disease. The St. Louis case involved a white man, happened inside a jail and was not recorded on video.
The justices do not typically take cases only to review the specific facts of an individual case. Instead, the limited number of cases they take each year are intended to resolve broader questions and guide lower courts nationwide. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote that in his view the court is not “above occasionally digging into the type of factbound questions that make up much of the work of the lower courts, and a decision by this Court on the question presented here could be instructive.”
“We have two respectable options: deny review of the factbound question that the case presents or grant the petition, have the case briefed and argued, roll up our sleeves, and decide the real issue. I favor the latter course, but what we should not do is take the easy out that the Court has chosen,” Alito wrote for himself and two other conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
The case the justices sent back to a lower court involves Nicholas Gilbert, a 27-year-old homeless man. In 2015, he was arrested by St. Louis City police for misdemeanors including trespassing and occupying a condemned building. Officials say that at the jail, officers observed Gilbert tying clothing around his neck and attaching it to cell bars in an apparent effort to kill himself.
Officers ultimately entered the cell and struggled with Gilbert, putting him in handcuffs and leg shackles. He died as a result of the 15-minute struggle, during which his head hit a concrete bench. Gilbert’s parents sued both the city and the officers, alleging the officers had used excessive force, but lower courts said the case should be dismissed.
Alito wrote that the appeals court said dismissing the case was appropriate after concluding “a reasonable jury would necessarily find that the police officers used reasonable force.” The court applied the correct legal standard and “made a judgment call on a sensitive question," he said. But a majority of the justices disagreed, saying that it was unclear whether the correct legal standard was used in concluding that the officers' actions did not amount to excessive force and that the appeals court should be given an opportunity to clarify its opinion.
“We express no view as to whether the officers used unconstitutionally excessive force," the unsigned opinion said in sending the case back to the appeals court.
In a statement, attorney Jonathan Taylor, who represents Gilbert's parents, said it was a “huge victory not only for our clients, but for police-reform advocates across the country and for the rule of law” to have the case sent back for further review.
The court's action sends “a powerful message to lower courts and law enforcement” to follow the “well-known police guidance recommending that officers get a subject off his stomach as soon as he is handcuffed,” Taylor said.
Nick Dunne, a spokesperson for St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, said in an emailed statement that the case “has been ongoing for many years, and as party to the suit, the City has no comment.”
The case is Lombardo v. St. Louis, 20-391.