What is the scope of reasonable police officer action under Title II of the ADA and the Fourth Amendment when dealing with armed and violent, mentally ill individuals?
The Supreme Court will determine whether the ADA requires police officers, when attempting an arrest, to reasonably accommodate a violent and armed, mentally ill suspect. San Francisco argues that Sheehan, the suspect in this case, posed a direct threat to others and, accordingly, the ADA did not apply. Moreover, San Francisco contends that, at the least, the officers did not violate a clearly established right and, thus, are protected from liability by qualified immunity. Sheehan counters that she posed a threat only to people that entered her room and that the officers’ action violated her clearly established right to be free from unreasonable seizures. The Court’s ruling will have an effect on the safety of the public, the mentally ill, and law enforcement officers.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
- Whether Title II of 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.
- Whether it clearly established that even where an exception to the warrant requirement applied an entry into a residence could be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment by reason of the anticipated resistance of an armed and violent suspect within.
In 2008, Respondent Teresa Sheehan, who has a mental illness, was a resident at the Conrad House, a group home in San Francisco for the mentally ill. After a social worker, Heath Hodge, entered Sheehan’s room without her permission to check on her, Sheehan told Hodge to leave and threatened him after stating that she had a knife. Hodge evacuated the group home and completed an application to have Sheehan involuntarily committed for seventy-two hours in a mental health facility, where she was to be evaluated and treated for her mental condition. Hodge then called the nonemergency police line to request help transporting Sheehan.
Two San Francisco police officers, Kimberly Reynolds and Katherine Holder, were dispatched to the Conrad House. Dispatch informed the officers that Sheehan was known to make violent threats, and that she had threatened to attack Hodge with a knife, though none was seen. When the officers arrived, Hodge showed them the application for involuntary commitment, which described Sheehan’s deteriorating condition and the threats Hodge received. On the application, Hodge had checked the box indicating that Sheehan was not a danger to herself. Outside of Sheehan’s room, the officers announced their presence before using Hodge’s key to open the door. Sheehan, who had been lying in bed with a book on her stomach or face, grabbed a knife upon seeing the officers and threatened to kill them, informing them that she did not need their help. The officers went back into the hallway.
After requesting backup, the officers sent Hodge outside to wait for backup and proceeded to open Sheehan’s door, entering with their weapons drawn. The officers stated that they did not wait for backup because they were concerned about Sheehan escaping and becoming a threat to others. The officers conceded that they did not take Sheehan’s mental illness into account when deciding to reenter. Upon reentering, Sheehan again threatened the officers with a knife, but the officers pepper sprayed her face and then shot her five or six times. Sheehan survived the shooting and filed a civil action for deprivation of rights against the Petitioner City and County of San Francisco (“San Francisco”) and the responding officers in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California (“district court”). Sheehan argued that her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Fourth Amendment were violated, among other claims.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the San Francisco and the responding officers, and Sheehan appealed. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) vacated summary judgment on Sheehan’s state claims and remanded for further proceedings. The Ninth Circuit held that Title II of the ADA applies to arrests and that there were triable issues of fact regarding whether the second entry into Sheehan’s room violated the Fourth Amendment and whether the officers used excessive force. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the scope of reasonable police officer action, within both Title II of the ADA and the Fourth Amendment, when interacting with armed and violent, mentally ill individuals.
The Supreme Court will clarify the scope of reasonable police officer action, within both Title II of the ADA (“ADA”) and the Fourth Amendment, when interacting with armed, mentally ill individuals. San Francisco claims that the officers in this case acted reasonably, as required by the Fourth Amendment, by complying with the structure of the ADA; thus, the officers’ conduct falls within the ambit of qualified immunity. Sheehan counters that the officers violated her Fourth Amendment rights by unreasonably reentering her room, not providing her ADA-required reasonable accommodations, and, accordingly, exceeded the boundaries of qualified immunity.
DID THE OFFICERS SATISFY THE REQUIREMENTS OF TITLE II OF THE ADA?
San Francisco claims that the ADA does not apply here because Sheehan posed a direct threat to others. According to San Francisco, Supreme Court precedent requires the Court to determine whether a direct threat to others existed by inquiring into whether the officers’ assessment of the risk was reasonable and based on objective evidence. San Francisco urges the Court to answer both inquiries affirmatively. San Francisco claims that the officers considered objective evidence to determine that Sheehan was a direct threat to others by relying on the facts that Sheehan had threatened to kill the two officers and her social worker, that Sheehan’s supervisor had warned that Sheehan posed a threat to others, that Sheehan could potentially exit through her window, and that Sheehan might fortify her position with other weapons. San Francisco concludes that these facts permitted the officers to reasonably decide that Sheehan posed a threat to others and, thus, the direct threat exception applies.
Sheehan counters that the direct threat exception does not apply here, and, even if it did, she did not pose a direct threat to others. Sheehan contends that the officers cannot provide a service to Sheehan specifically because she is mentally ill then claim that her mental illness created a direct threat to others. Moreover, Sheehan asserts that, objectively, she did not pose a threat to anyone else. Supporting this proposition, Sheehan argues that she repeatedly asked the officers to leave her alone, threatened them only when they entered her room, and—at around 5’5” and 250 pounds—was not a flight risk. Thus, Sheehan argues, the only direct threat she posed was to people that entered her room, which was wholly within the control of the officers.
Sheehan also contends that, even if she was a direct threat to others, the ADA still applies, for the officers could have modified their strategy to mitigate the danger that she posed. Sheehan, through her expert witness, maintains that the officers should have “respected her comfort zone, used non-threatening communications, and employed the pass of time to their advantage.” According to Sheehan, this proposed tactic would have eliminated the threat she posed.
San Francisco counters that the officers’ behavior was reasonable notwithstanding Sheehan’s proposed modifications. San Francisco advances that Sheehan’s mitigation strategy is the result of hindsight bias and speculation, and therefore, the Court should not assess the validity of the strategy when determining the officers’ reasonableness. Moreover, San Francisco contends that Sheehan’s plan does not account for the fact that Sheehan could have escaped through the back window or fortified herself in the room, resulting in a graver threat. Therefore, San Francisco maintains that Sheehan’s plan would not have mitigated the direct threat and that, accordingly, the officers acted reasonably.
ARE THE OFFICERS ENTITLED TO QUALIFIED IMMUNITY?
Courts utilize a two-step test to determine whether qualified immunity protects the officers from liability. First, a judge will examine whether the officers violated a federal right. Second, the judge will determine whether the existence of that federal right was “clearly established” when the officers shot Sheehan. Although the first step is not before the Court, San Francisco and Sheehan disagree over whether the officers violated any of Sheehan’s clearly established rights.
San Francisco contends that federal courts have never clearly established that officers must refrain from entering a home when they anticipate resistance, even though the act of entering complies with the Fourth Amendment. In support, San Francisco asserts that the Supreme Court has held that a resisting suspect with access to weapons in his or her home creates an exigent circumstance that permits officers to lawfully enter. San Francisco claims that this precedent creates an ambiguity, and therefore, the officers did not violate a clearly established right protected by the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, San Francisco alleges that analysis of the reasonableness of a Fourth Amendment search is inherently fact-bound and, thus, does not create any clearly established law that the officers could violate. Finally, San Francisco argues that even if federal law did establish a clear right, state law permitted the officers to use reasonable force to effectuate an arrest even in the face of resistance. Thus, the conflicting state law means that the relevant right was not clearly established.
Sheehan counters that San Francisco misconstrues the substance of the clearly established rule. The clearly established rule, Sheehan claims, is that if officers use deadly force without considering the suspect’s mental health and without a countervailing need for it, then the officers have violated a clearly established right. According to Sheehan, any reasonable officer would have known that, on the facts presented in this case, using deadly force would violate her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. Sheehan claims that the government did not have any countervailing interest in reentering the room immediately, and, accordingly, entering was patently unreasonable. In support, Sheehan reasserts that the officers did not need to act swiftly because she did not pose a flight risk. If Sheehan did not pose a flight risk, then, according to Sheehan, the government could have avoided the use of deadly force by delaying entry. Moreover, Sheehan rejects San Francisco’s state-law argument by claiming that a state statute cannot supersede a clearly established federal right.
The Supreme Court will decide the scope of reasonable police officer action, within both Title II of the ADA and the Fourth Amendment, in encounters with armed, mentally ill individuals. San Francisco argues that the ADA does not require police officers to make accommodations for violent and armed, mentally ill suspects, and that the Ninth Circuit erred by holding that police officers are required to not enter the residence of those individuals if the officers anticipate resistance. Sheehan counters that the ADA applies and the officers violated the ADA by failing to reasonably accommodate her condition, and that it was objectively unreasonable for the officers to reenter her room, thus violating the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court’s decision will implicate the safety of the public, mentally ill, and police officers.
THE ADA’S EFFECT ON THE PUBLIC, THE MENTALLY ILL, AND LAW ENFORCEMENT
The National League of Cities (“NLC”), in support of San Francisco, argues that police officers make split-second decisions, and exposing officers to liability under the ADA would cause them to hesitate and delay their actions. The NLC states that this hesitancy would jeopardize the safety of the public, police, and the mentally ill, who might harm themselves or others if not quickly neutralized. The International Municipal Lawyers Association (“IMLA”) also argues, in support of San Francisco, that the ADA applies at “the policy and training level, but not to situation-specific decisions” made by an officer. Furthermore, the IMLA contends that to apply the ADA in confrontations with violent mentally ill suspects would restrict the discretion that officers need when facing unpredictable situations.
The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), in support of Sheehan, counters that accommodations under the ADA take into account the nature of police work. The ACLU asserts that modifications are not required when officers face a direct threat to their own or the public’s safety. The American Psychiatric Association (“APA”), in support of Sheehan, contends that ADA accommodations need to be reasonable, thus not imposing an unfair burden on officers. Finally, the Policy Council on Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill argues, in support of Sheehan, that not applying the ADA in encounters between officers and the mentally ill will cause the mentally ill to not seek help, for they will fear encounters with officers.
THE FOURTH AMENDMENT’S EFFECT ON THE PUBLIC, THE MENTALLY ILL, AND LAW ENFORCEMENT
The NLC argues, in support of San Francisco, that a Fourth Amendment claim is judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, and that the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment are meant to allow law enforcement officers to give aid when, in their judgment, there is a threat to the public safety. The IMLA also argues, in support of San Francisco, that the Fourth Amendment allows the use of force when the circumstances make its use objectively reasonable, and this is sufficient to protect the rights of the mentally ill, since they will still be protected when the use of force is unreasonable.
The National Police Accountability Project (“NPAP”) counters, in support of Sheehan, that while the Fourth Amendment allows the use of force if its use is objectively reasonable, this does not allow police officers to create situations that will likely require the use of force. The NPAP asserts that when dealing with the mentally ill, officers must alter their tactics to avoid creating a deadly situation. Thus, the NPAP argues that granting qualified immunity to officers who anticipate resistance from a violent and mentally ill suspect will only increase the risk to the public, the mentally ill, and officers that immunity will allow officers to resort to the use of force before less deadly tactics.
The Supreme Court will determine whether police officers must provide reasonable accommodations under Title II of the ADA to armed and violent, mentally ill suspects. San Francisco argues that Sheehan posed a direct threat to others, which dissolved the necessity to provide reasonable accommodations to her. Sheehan counters that she did not pose a direct threat to anyone and, thus, the officers’ use of force was clearly unreasonable. The Court’s ruling will have an effect on the safety of the public, the mentally ill, and law enforcement officers.
- Lyle Denniston: Court to rule on disability rights, mercury pollution, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 25, 2014).
- Jessie Lorenz: SF appeal threatens protections for the disabled, The San Francisco Examiner (Jan. 20, 2015).
- Richard Wolf: Justices to decide rights of disabled during arrests, USA Today (Nov. 25, 2014).