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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling Monday in a case about whether St. Louis police used excessive force on a man who died after officers handcuffed him and put their weight on his back inside a jail cell.
In an unsigned opinion that drew dissent from three conservative justices, the court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit for further review – a move that prompted cautious praise from groups seeking to overhaul policing.
Police arrested Nicholas Gilbert, 27, a homeless man, in 2015 on suspicion of trespassing and failing to appear in court for an outstanding traffic ticket. After a struggle inside the facility where Gilbert was booked, he was handcuffed and shackled as six officers used their weight to subdue him. Gilbert died during the altercation.
The appeal, filed at the Supreme Court in September, came at a time of heightened tension between police and communities of color after high-profile incidents in which Black people were killed in interactions with officers. Gilbert was white, though his parents noted the similarities between their son's death and that of George Floyd, the Black man killed by Minneapolis police last year.
The majority said it was unclear whether the appeals court thought the use of a prone restraint was always constitutional if a person appeared to be resisting officers. It either failed to consider or dismissed evidence such as department guidance instructing officers to move a subject off his stomach as soon as he is handcuffed because of the suffocation risk, the majority said.
"Having either failed to analyze such evidence or characterized it as insignificant, the court’s opinion could be read to treat Gilbert’s 'ongoing resistance' as controlling as a matter of law," the court's opinion said. "Such a per se rule would contravene the careful, context-specific analysis required by this court’s excessive force precedent."
"This course of action may be convenient for this court, but it is unfair to the Court of Appeals," Alito wrote. "If we expect the lower courts to respect our decisions, we should not twist their opinions to make our job easier."
An attorney for the city of St. Louis said officials were reviewing the opinion.
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of Floyd's killing, an incident that renewed a national debate over policing. A big part of that debate has centered on the qualified immunity doctrine that protects police and other government officials from civil liability for civil rights violations when they do not violate "clearly established" law.
Largely partisan conflicts over qualified immunity have stymied congressional efforts to approve changes to policing in response to Floyd's death. The appeals court did not decide the case on qualified immunity grounds because it concluded excessive force was not used. Because of that, qualified immunity was not before the Supreme Court.
Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, said the outcome will "give the opponents of qualified immunity some cautious optimism that the court is open to recalibrating the doctrine, if it's not willing to completely overrule it." That, he said, is because "the court has gone out of its way here to essentially reach the merits of the constitutional claim, which it didn't have to do."
Lawyers for the family and civil rights groups wanted the court to set a standard for whether it's excessive force to apply weight to the back of a suspect who is handcuffed and shackled. If the justices had done that, the practical result would have been that victims and families would find it easier to bring civil lawsuits against police after such incidents.
A medical examiner found the cause of Gilbert's death was heart disease, exacerbated by methamphetamine and forcible restraint, according to court records. Police involved in the incident said that Gilbert acted "strangely" and that they intervened because he appeared to be tying clothing around his neck.
Gilbert's family produced a report from an expert that found Gilbert’s death was caused by asphyxia.
His family pointed to a bulletin in 1995 from the Department of Justice encouraging police to roll suspects off their stomachs once they are handcuffed to avoid the risk of asphyxia. The notice discouraged police from sitting on a suspect's back.
The 8th Circuit ruled against Gilbert's family, creating a split on how the nation's appellate courts view the practice. Other circuits concluded that no "reasonable officer" would put pressure on a suspect's back after the person was subdued with handcuffs and ankle restraints.
The 8th Circuit pointed to Gilbert's "extensive" heart disease, his resistance and the "large quantity of methamphetamine" in his system.
"Gilbert’s resistance while in the prone position was actually an attempt to breathe and an attempt to tell the officers that they were hurting him," the appeals court wrote in its opinion last year. "However, under the circumstances, the officers could have reasonably interpreted such conduct as ongoing resistance."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court tells lower court to look again at excessive force case