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summary judgement denied for officer who placed pressure on back of arrestee who died


Nicholas Gilbert, 5’3″ and 160lbs, was arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2015 for trespassing and failure to appear for a traffic ticket. While in the holding cell, an officer observed Gilbert trying to kill himself by using a piece of clothing and the cell bars.

Three officers intervened and handcuffed him but Gilbert continued to kick and bang his head on the bench. Three more officers arrived and his legs were shackled. He was then placed in a prone position and at least one officer placed pressure on his back and torso. Gilbert tried to raise his chest saying, “It hurts.  Stop!” After 15 minutes of struggling, his breathing became abnormal and he died.

Gilbert’s parents sued, claiming that the officers violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force. Both the district court and court of appeals granted a motion for summary judgement for the officers. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the summary judgement and remanded the case back to resolve an issue. In short, the Supreme Court did not believe the factors were sufficiently analyzed by the 8th circuit.


The question in excessive force cases is whether the officers actions were objectively reasonable. In Kinglsey, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the following factors to be used in determining whether an officers actions to use force on a pretrial detainee is reasonable:

The relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used;

The extent of the plaintiff ’s injury;

Any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force;

The severity of the security problem at issue;

The threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and

Whether the plaintiff was actively resisting.

While the 8th circuit utilized the Kingsley factors, the U.S. Supreme Court was concerned with a sentence in their opinion regarding force.

Specifically, it was not clear from the 8th circuit opinion whether they believed the 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 U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that this type of rule would not be allowed.

Other concerns that the U.S. Supreme Court had in this case:

  1. St. Louis instructs its officers that pressing down on the back of a prone subject can cause suffocation;
  2. Police guidance advises that a subject should get off his stomach after being handcuffed because of #1;
  3. Struggles of a subject may be due to oxygen deficiency rather than a desire to disobey;
  4. Gilbert was both handcuffed and leg shackled for 15 minutes which may tie into the factors above.

To be clear, the Supreme Court is not saying that the officers violated Gilbert’s constitutional rights. They simply want the 8th circuit to go back and review the factors again noting the issues raised by the Supreme Court with justification for their decision.


What do I believe you should you take away from this case?

A)  A subject continuing to resist will never justify unlimited uses of prone restraints (kind, intensity, and duration);

B)  Courts are going to have different analysis of excessive force based upon whether the subject is restrained (handcuffs, shackles) or unrestrained (trying to get subject in cuffs, etc.);

C)  What is your department guidance on pressing down on a subject’s back?

D)  Once restrained, what is your department guidance regarding getting him off of his stomach?