Supreme Court Considers Whether the ADA Requires Officers to Provide Accommodations to Violent and Mentally Ill Suspects


By: Kevin Stone and Brian Dempsey

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Sheehan v. City and County of San Francisco and grappled with an important issue facing every law enforcement officer across the nation: Whether Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.

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.

Currently, most federal circuit courts agree that the ADA generally applies in the arrest context.  They are split, however, on whether and how the ADA applies when exigent circumstances exist.  The Fifth and Sixth Circuits do not require police officers to provide accommodations to disabled suspects when exigent circumstances or public safety concerns are present. By contrast, the Fourth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits consider exigency as one aspect of the inquiry into whether proposed accommodations are reasonable.

During oral argument, Justice Scalia made clear his thoughts on the issue: “It is never reasonable to accommodate somebody who is armed and violent, period.”  While the other Justices were not so explicit, most expressed concerns with the practicality of accommodating armed and violent mentally ill suspects before they are safely in custody.  On the other end of the spectrum, Justice Sotomayor’s comments suggested that police officers must try to mitigate these situations before they “jump to violence.”  She observed that approximately 350 mentally ill people are shot by police officers every year, while also recognizing that 100 officers die at the hands of mentally ill suspects.  While Justice Sotomayor proposed that the ADA was intended to ensure that the police mitigate these tense situations without force, she did not suggest how officers are supposed to do so.

If an accommodation is required, determining what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation presents yet another problem.  For example, some of the justices seemed inclined to accept that the officers’ initial use of pepper spray, rather than lethal force, qualified as a suitable accommodation.  Another pertinent discussion addressed how the ADA requires an officer to respond when he or she encounters someone who — unbeknownst to the officer — has a mental illness.  For example, a suspect might exhibit subjectively strange behaviors which could be attributable to many factors which are unrelated to mental illness.  For good reason, the justices questioned whether officers can practically be expected to diagnose each suspect and then decide the accommodation question, all in the heat of the moment.

A decision is expected by June.  While litigation may take years, officers must respond in only minutes or seconds.  Regardless of the outcome, this case underscores that concerns regarding public safety, officer safety, and the rights of disabled individuals often intersect in ways that yield no easy answers to either law enforcement officers or the courts which ultimately review their actions.