The Supreme Court on Monday allowed the parents of a St. Louis man to proceed with their lawsuit claiming that police caused his death by holding him face down on the floor.
Nicholas Gilbert was arrested in 2015 for trespassing and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket. While he was detained in a holding cell, police said, he tried to hang himself.
Responding officers handcuffed him, but he continued to struggle, according to court records. He was eventually placed on the floor of the cell, face down, with at least one officer putting pressure on his back and torso to hold him down.
Gilbert tried to raise his chest and said, "It hurts. Stop," the court records said. After 15 minutes of struggling in this position, he stopped moving and his breathing became abnormal. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Gilbert's parents filed a lawsuit against the city, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the police did not use excessive force.
In an unsigned opinion issued Monday, the Supreme Court vacated the appeals court ruling and sent the case back for further proceedings.
"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," the court said. "The struggles of a prone suspect may be due to oxygen deficiency, rather than a desire to disobey officers' commands."
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken the case to decide whether the use of force against Gilbert was so excessive that it violated the Constitution.
"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 for the three dissenters.
"On the other hand, the officers' use of force inflicted serious injuries, and the medical evidence on the case of death was conflicting," he wrote.