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Supreme Court revives lawsuit alleging excessive force in death of man cuffed and shackled

The Supreme Court building in Washington.
The Supreme Court building in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court on Monday revived a lawsuit that alleges St. Louis police used excessive force in subduing a man who died while handcuffed and shackled in his cell.

In an unsigned opinion, the court threw out a lower-court ruling in favor of the officers, which dismissed the suit filed by the man’s parents. Six officers kept Nicholas Gilbert in a prone position for 15 minutes after he had been handcuffed and placed in leg irons.

Gilbert, arrested on charges of trespassing in a condemned building and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket, had appeared to try to hang himself in his cell and then kicked and struggled with officers who rushed in. At least one of the officers applied force to the back and torso of Gilbert, who was 5 feet, 3 inches and weighed 160 pounds. He stopped breathing and was pronounced dead at a hospital.

A district judge ruled for the officers, saying they were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects police and other government officials in certain circumstances. In this case, the judge ruled, the officers did not violate a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the incident.

Analysis: Qualified immunity, or how the law shields police

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit also said the case should be dismissed. It said the officers did not use unconstitutionally excessive force.

But the Supreme Court opinion questioned a key finding by the appeals court: that “the use of prone restraint is not objectively unreasonable when a detainee actively resists officer directives and efforts to subdue the detainee.”

The Supreme Court said it was unclear whether the lower court carefully considered all relevant circumstances, including that Gilbert was already handcuffed and shackled when officers kept him in a prone position.

“Such details could matter when deciding whether to grant summary judgment on an excessive force claim,” the opinion said. It noted that evidence indicates “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.”

Those in the majority Monday said the 8th Circuit should “clarify” how it reached its decision and professed “no view as to whether the officers used unconstitutionally excessive force or, if they did, whether Gilbert’s right to be free of such force in these circumstances was clearly established at the time of his death.”

The case offers clear comparisons to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Three dissenting justices indicated their Supreme Court colleagues may be reacting to national tensions concerning that case by sending Gilbert’s suit back to the lower court, rather than either leaving the decision in place or granting it for full argument and review at the high court.

“The Court, unfortunately, is unwilling to face up to the choice between denying the petition (and bearing the criticism that would inevitably elicit) and granting plenary review (and doing the work that would entail),” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.

Alito wrote that he did not know how he would have ruled if he had been a member of the appeals court.

“The officers plainly had a reasonable basis for using some degree of force to restrain Gilbert so that he would not harm himself, and it appears that Gilbert, despite his slight stature, put up a fierce and prolonged resistance,” Alito wrote. “On the other hand, the officers’ use of force inflicted serious injuries, and the medical evidence on the cause of death was conflicting.”

Issues of qualified immunity and excessive police force are increasing, and Alito said that “a decision by this Court on the question presented here could be instructive.”

He said justices should “roll up our sleeves, and decide the real issue” rather than “take the easy out that the Court has chosen.”

The case is Lombardo v. City of St. Louis.

Commuter tax

The justices also turned away a challenge to commuter tax regulations temporarily put in place by Massachusetts on the income of New Hampshire residents who, because of the coronavirus pandemic, have worked remotely for employers based in Massachusetts.

The case has implications for taxpayers who telecommute and other states that tax nonresidents for income they earn working remotely from their home states. Thomas and Alito said they would have accepted it.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who initiated the lawsuit, said in a statement that “allowing inappropriate taxation of NH citizens” sets a “costly precedent.”

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation had also urged the justices to take the case and said in a statement that the “court chose to punt today, but telework is here to stay and remote work taxation issues are not going away.”

The emergency regulation expires in September.

The case is State of New Hampshire v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Marijuana laws

In another matter, Thomas criticized the U.S. government’s “contradictory and unstable” approach to regulating marijuana and suggested that laws banning its use and cultivation are unnecessary.

“A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the Federal Government’s piecemeal approach,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas’s opinion is rooted in his embrace of limited federal power. He outlined his view in a comment on the court’s decision not to take a case brought by the operators of a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado seeking a federal tax break for their business.

A whiff of pot alone no longer airtight probable cause for police to search cars in several states

Although federal law prohibits the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana, the government has discouraged prosecution of those complying with conflicting state laws. Congress also has prohibited the Justice Department from preventing states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws. More than half the states allow medical marijuana use, and 18 of those allow recreational use.

“Given all these developments, one can certainly understand why an ordinary person might think that the Federal Government has retreated from its once-absolute ban on marijuana,” Thomas wrote.

The Colorado operators appealed after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said the Internal Revenue Service could deny a business tax deduction for the medical marijuana company.

Thomas called the federal government’s policies related to marijuana a “half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana. This contradictory and unstable state of affairs strains basic principles of federalism and conceals traps for the unwary.”

The case is Standing Akimbo, LLC v. U.S.

Property rights

The court also sided Monday with property owners in a case challenging a San Francisco ordinance requiring landlords in certain circumstances to offer lifetime leases to renters.

The justices said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit got it wrong when it held that the property owners could not go to court before the city’s administrative process was complete.

The owners, a married couple, bought the apartment in 2009 and planned to rent out their unit until retirement. They joined with other owners in trying to convert the building to a condominium. The couple sued in federal court after the city passed a law allowing such conversions only if owners offered a lifetime lease to current tenants.

Quoting from an earlier decision, the justices said in an unsigned order that there is “no question that the government’s ‘definitive position on the issue [has] inflict[ed] an actual, concrete injury’ of requiring petitioners to choose between surrendering possession of their property or facing the wrath of the government.”

The order, with no noted dissents, dissolves the 9th Circuit ruling and sends the case back for further proceedings.

The case is Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco.