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Supreme Court Petitioned To Revisit Prone Restraint Death


Last week, the family of a St. Louis, Missouri man who was killed in police custody filed a new petition with the Supreme Court. 

Lombardo v. City of St. Louis concerns the death of Nicholas Gilbert, who in 2015 was restrained by police officers who knelt on his back for 15 minutes until he suffocated.

Gilbert was in police custody in a jail cell when police came to restrain him, and he resisted. He was placed prone, restrained on the ground on his stomach while officers held him down by his back. He died after 15 minutes restrained this way. 

His parents sued the city for violating Gilbert’s constitutional rights on excessive force grounds.

This is not this case’s first time before the Supreme Court. The lower court and appeals court found in the officers’ favor.

The petitioned case comes after the Eight Circuit again granted qualified immunity back to the officer defendants in the case after being remanded in 2021 by the nation’s highest court to review the facts and circumstances of the case. 

Key to the case is the Eight Circuit’s determination that “ongoing resistance,” from Lombardo justified ignoring or overruled the need to move a restrained person from a potentially-fatal prone position. 

Lombardo’s family has asked the Supreme Court to consider the case again. 

Qualified Immunity vs. Excessive Force

The question the court would have to decide is this: whether public officers were on notice that putting a person who is handcuffed and in leg shackles face-down on the ground and applying sustained force by pressing into their back until that person suffocated and died is unconstitutional. 

Essentially, were officers aware or should officers have been aware that that kind of prone restraint is deadly, and would constitute excessive force? Or, were officers justified in using what became deadly force because Gilbert resisted? 

The City of St. Louis has so far declined to respond to the petitioner’s request to the supreme court. 

Professor Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law with a focus on criminal justice and policing and a former Tallahassee Police Department officer, filed a brief as amicus curiae, an impartial advisor, to the Supreme Court on Friday.  

Stoughton lays out 20 pages of precedent and examples arguing that decades police training and common understanding show that officers across the country are aware that prone restraint, like what killed Gilbert, is deadly. 

With that history, Stoughton argues, the restraint of Lombardo cannot be considered “objectively reasonable,” in the test required for judging a claim of excessive force. You can read Stoughton’s complete brief here

“The officers’ conduct eschewed decades of commonly accepted policing practices and their city’s own understanding of the risks of prone restraints,” Stoughton wrote. 

“The Eighth Circuit’s conclusion that the officer’s force was not clearly established as excessive defies years of experience and research demonstrating—and years of police policy and circuit caselaw acknowledging—the risk that these exact tactics result in death.”

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