Supreme Court excessive force ruling could be 'a big deal,' lawyer says
The Supreme Court last month dismissed a lower court ruling that police officers who used excessive force on a 27-year-old man who died in their custody were protected because they did not know their actions were unconstitutional.
And it's a decision that, according to legal experts like Jon Taylor, an attorney who represented this man Nicholas Gilbert's family, could have profound effects.
"The Supreme Court unceremoniously overturned a pro-official lower court ruling in an excessive violence case," Taylor told ABC News. "So this is a big deal, not just because of what the Supreme Court said, but also because of the future files."
Steve Art, an attorney who filed a brief on the ACLU's behalf, shared Taylor's views.
"It is extremely rare for the Supreme Court to summarily overturn a decision finding that the police did not use excessive force," Art told ABC News. "The Supreme Court is sending a clear signal to the lower courts that they cannot reflexively decide cases for police officers if they use brutal tactics against reluctant citizens."
PHOTO: A view of St. Louis. (Mike Kline / Getty Images)
Gilbert died in a St. Louis Police Department detention cell in December 2015 after six officers detained him for 15 minutes, handcuffed and shackled him, and forced him face down on the floor. Police said at the time they believed Gilbert was suicidal and said they acted to prevent him from killing himself. The officers were never charged.
Gilbert's parents, Bryan Gilbert and Jody Lombardo, sued the officers after his death and the US 8th Court of Appeals ruled against them.
Officials pushed for qualified immunity - meaning they would be protected from personal liability unless they violated clearly established constitutional rights - when faced with the lawsuit in 2016, and in 2019 that immunity turned from one Federal judges granted the 8th District Court, which recognized that excessive force was used.
PHOTO: Michael Brown can be seen in this photo posted on Facebook May 19, 2013. (Courtesy Brown Family)
But the Supreme Court referred the case back to the lower court on June 28, ruling that the 8th District Court did not clearly define whether "vulnerable restraint" was constitutional.
"The eighth district did not answer the question of qualified immunity because it found no constitutional violation at all," Elizabeth Beske, a law professor at American University, told ABC News. "By sending the case back, the Supreme Court is signaling to the Eighth District that cases of excessive violence require a close look at certain facts and circumstances and cannot be lightly dismissed."
One part of the judgment states: "It is unclear whether the court's use of susceptible restraint - regardless of the nature, intensity, duration, or surrounding circumstances - was constitutional per se so long as a person appears to resist the efforts of officials to to submit to him. "
However, the Supreme Court decision was not unanimous - Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito opposed it.
Alito wrote the dissent, which included: “We each have two options: to refuse to review the factual question raised by the case, or to allow the petition, have the case briefed and argued, roll up our sleeves, and close the real problem decide to advocate the latter path, but what we shouldn't do is not easily do what the court has chosen. "
"The endorsement of Chief Justice Roberts and Judges Kavanaugh and Barrett sends a strong signal that this court is paying attention and will not tolerate casual treatment of these serious social problems," added Beske.
That decision could have profound implications and set a precedent for future cases of excessive violence, said Taylor, Gilbert's family attorney.
"I think the Tribunal recognizes this political moment, in particular that these types of issues are receiving increased attention," added Taylor. "I think that partly explains why the Supreme Court hasn't given up on this."
PHOTO: A view of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 2021 in Washington. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images, FILE)
Art, who filed the letter on behalf of the ACLU, added, “We expect the Lombardy case will result in the jury hearing more cases brought in by the families of those killed and injured by the police, instead of that these cases are decided by judges before the trial. "
This is not the first time the 8th circle has considered an excessive force case. It also handled cases involving Michael Brown and George Floyd, who were each killed by police after being arrested for offenses - Brown in 2014 and Floyd in 2020. U.S. appeals court in a 2- 1 ruling, a lower court ruling that Ferguson, Missouri Police were not eligible for qualified immunity from a lawsuit by Dorian Johnson that was stopped along with Brown.
“The Court's efforts in this area are likely to respond to the ongoing racial justice movement and political pressure on the Supreme Court itself. Calls to 'grab' the court will increase when it is widely perceived that the Conservative court is significantly out of control is. Step with public opinion, "said Beske.
Gilbert was homeless and under the influence of methamphetamines at the time when he was arrested for a non-violent crime, police said. After Gilbert died, officers said they believed he had experienced a "mental crisis" while he was in his cell, which led the officers to attack and hold him back.
Taylor said Gilbert "lifted his chest to breathe and said it hurt and asked her to stop and then he died. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was forcible asphyxiation."
While racial issues may have been more commonly documented in cases where the police were accused of excessive use of force, mental illness is another important factor. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with an untreated metal disease are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.
The Justice Department has warned about these risk factors in the past, and law enforcement agencies across the country have been asked to train police on how to properly deal with potential mental illness. Officials were cautioned that people suffering from such an episode, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, are at particular risk of suffocation if they are held face down, as it restricts their breathing.
In a statement to ABC News, Gilbert's mother said her son was "kind and loving" and "the kind of young man who keeps the shirt off his back. He was bubbly and happy all along. He was a happy young man and." he had plans in life. "
"I want my son to finally have his court day in front of a jury," she added. "I want my son's case to be an example - something that changes the way the police treat people."
The Supreme Court ruling on excessive violence could be "a big deal," says the attorney, who originally appeared on abcnews.go.com
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