Supreme Court Grants Qualified Immunity to Police Officers Involved in Encounter with Mentally Ill Woman, Declines to Address Whether ADA Applies to Arrests


By: Andy Treese and Charles Reed, Jr.

This week the United States Supreme Court declined to rule on the issue of whether the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.  At the same time, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and awarded qualified immunity to two San Francisco police officers forced to shoot a woman who charged them with a knife after they entered her home to take her into custody for a mental health evaluation.  .  The case is City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 575 U.S. ___ (2015).  Brian Dempsey and Kevin Stone previously blogged about the case here.  Look for an article with further details on this ruling in our next LawLine newsletter.

The case arose out of an incident at a group home for the mentally ill.  Teresa Sheehan, a resident of the home, threatened to kill a social worker, so the social worker called San Francisco police officers to detain Sheehan for a psychiatric evaluation. When the two female police officers arrived, they entered Sheehan’s room.  Sheehan then attacked the officers with a knife, forcing them out of the room and slamming the door.  The officers called for back-up. But before back-up arrived, the officers re-opened the door because they feared that Sheehan might be planning an ambush.  Sheehan again attacked them with the knife.  In response, the officers pepper-sprayed Sheehan.  When this did not stop Sheehan’s advance, the officers shot Sheehan several times.  She survived and sued, contending that the officers’ entry and use of force were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that they failed to accommodate her mental illness.   The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Court took the case to reach the legal question of whether the ADA applies in the arrest context at all, but San Francisco changed its legal position during the case, so the Court declined to reach the issue.

The Court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because  the “right” recognized by the Ninth Circuit in this case – a right to have the police accommodate a disability before making an entry that was otherwise valid under the Fourth Amendment – was not clearly established, if it existed at all.  A plaintiff cannot “establish a Fourth Amendment violation based merely on bad tactics that result in a deadly confrontation that could have been avoided. Courts must not judge officers with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”  The Court declined to rely on the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation” theory, which has been sharply criticized, and rejected the notion that expert testimony was sufficient to establish a constitutional violation.  Notably, the Court held that “even if an officer acts contrary to her training…that does not itself negate qualified immunity where it would otherwise be warranted.  Rather, so long as a reasonable officer could have believed that his conduct was justified, a plaintiff cannot avoid summary judgment by simply producing an expert’s report that an officer’s conduct leading up to a deadly confrontation was imprudent, inappropriate, or even reckless.  In close cases, a jury does not automatically get to second-guess these life and death decisions, even though a plaintiff has an expert and a plausible claim that the situation could better have been handled differently.”

Officers dealing with mentally ill subjects are often forced to make tough decisions without the benefit of a “pause” or “rewind” button.  The ruling in this case reiterates the protection afforded to officers for making those decisions, while reminding the lower courts that the Fourth Amendment’s use of force inquiry is based on a constitutional standard of objective reasonableness, rather than hindsight, or second-guessing by a paid expert after the fact.