Lombardo v. St. Louis: Prone restraint can be excessive force even when detainee resists
Prone restraint can constitute excessive force even though the detainee resists officers, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 28 in Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, Missouri.
Nicholas Gilbert was arrested for trespassing and failing to appear for traffic court. He was taken to a police station holding cell.
When Gilbert tried to hang himself in the cell, up to six officers went into the cell, struggled with Gilbert, cuffed his hands and legs, and held him face down in a prone position.
Gilbert tried to raise his chest saying, “It hurts. Stop.”
After 15 minutes of struggling in the prone position, Gilbert died.
His parents sued, alleging officers had used excessive force.
The District Court granted summary judgment for the officers. The Eighth Circuit affirmed on grounds 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 reversed, in a 6-3 per curiam opinion.
The Eighth Circuit appeared to hold that “use of a prone restraint – no matter the kind, intensity, duration, or surrounding circumstances – is per se constitutional so long as an individual appears to resist officers’ efforts to subdue him,” the Court said.
The correct inquiry, on a claims of excessive force, is “whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them,” the Court said. “A court (judge or jury) cannot apply this standard mechanically.”
“Rather, the inquiry ‘requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case,’” the Court said.
Factors to consider include the need for use of force and the amount used; the extent of plaintiff’s injury; any efforts made by officers to limit use of force; the severity of the security problem at issue; the threat reasonably perceived by officers; and whether plaintiff was resisting, the Court said.
The Eighth Circuit did not properly consider these factors, the Court said.
The Eighth Circuit ignored evidence that St. Louis instructs its officers that a prone restraint can lead to suffocation, and that “well-known police guidance” recommends that officers get people off their stomach to avoid that risk.
“We express no view as to whether the officers used excessive force,” the Court concluded. The Court vacated and remanded the case to allow lower courts to apply the proper factors.
Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented.