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10 Cops Got Qualified Immunity After Holding a Shackled Man Facedown Until He Died

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Qualified Immunity

Billy Binion | 5.28.2021 1:22 PM

Nicholas Gilbert entered a cell in the custody of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) in December 2015 after officers arrested him for being in a condemned building and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket. He would not leave alive.

The 10 cops who handcuffed, shackled, and subdued him facedown on the ground of that cell until he stopped breathing did not deploy excessive force and thus cannot be sued over the incident, a federal court ruled last year. The case now heads to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will reportedly announce in the coming days if the nine justices will consider hearing the appeal.

Gilbert attracted the attention of Officer Jason King on the evening of December 8, 2015, when King allegedly noticed Gilbert tying a piece of clothing around his neck and the bars of his cell. Officer Joe Stuckey entered the area to address the issue, and though he says he did not find Gilbert with any clothing around his neck, he proceeded to cuff him. Gilbert struggled and was eventually placed in leg shackles facedown on the floor with the help of Officers Paul Wactor, Michael Cognasso, Kyle Mack, Erich vonNida, Bryan Lemons, Zachary Opel, and Ronald Degregorio, along with Sergeant Ronald Bergmann, who at different points collectively sought to subdue Gilbert.

He would eventually stop breathing, and was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri awarded the officers qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that allows government officials to violate your constitutional rights without threat of civil suits if the precise way they violated those rights has not been outlined in a prior court precedent. (In practice, that means that two cops who allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant got qualified immunity, because there was no previous court ruling that said theft under those circumstances is unconstitutional.)

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld the ruling, writing that the force applied did not qualify as constitutionally excessive.

"Gilbert continued to violently struggle even after being handcuffed and leg-shackled," wrote Circuit Judge Bobby E.........

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