Today, the Supreme Court decided San Francisco v. Sheehan, 6:2 sort-of-in favor of the city (Justice Breyer recused himself–his brother decided the case in a lower instance.) The facts, taken verbatim from the case syllabus, are as follows:

Respondent Sheehan lived in a group home for individuals with mental illness. After Sheehan began acting erratically and threatened to kill her social worker, the City and County of San Francisco (San Francisco) dispatched police officers Reynolds and Holder to help escort Sheehan to a facility for temporary evaluation and treatment. When the officers first entered Sheehan’s room, she grabbed a knife and threatened to kill them. They retreated and closed the door. Concerned about what Sheehan might do behind the closed door, and without considering if they could accommodate her disability, the officers reentered her room. Sheehan, knife in hand, again confronted them. After pepper spray proved ineffective, the officers shot Sheehan multiple times [seriously injuring, but not killing her–H.A.].

What should the cops do under such circumstances? Sheehan sued the City, arguing that when dealing with a mentally ill patient, the cops are bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In lower courts, the city tried to argue that the ADA does not apply to police dealings with an armed and dangerous individuals. However, before the Supreme Court, the city presented and argued a brief merely stating that there was no way to accommodate Sheehan under the ADA due to the circumstances, in which she was not “participating” in an activity from which she might “benefit”. The dissent, written by Justice Scalia, would deny the city relief because of this change of tactics.

But the majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, stated that the police officers had qualified immunity from Sheehan’s lawsuit, because their actions did not clearly violate her Fourth Amendment rights; Fourth Amendment doctrine at the time did not include a clear and explicit mandate to accommodate suspects with disabilities, and the question whether it should has been left open.

Bottom line:
1. The city does not have to pay; the cops have immunity.
2. We have no answer whether the ADA covers armed and dangerous individuals.
3. We have no answer whether an arrest is an “activity” covered by the ADA.
4. We have no answer whether not accommodating an armed, violent, mentally-ill suspect is a Fourth Amendment violation.

Some thoughts:

1. These sorts of situations are going to be really difficult to parse out constitutionally, because the devil really is in the details. The degree to which the police might be aware that the suspect is mentally ill and the extent of the threat she or he pose would vary from situation to situation, and whatever Fourth Amendment standard is adopted will have to take that into account.

2. Let’s set aside constitutional doctrine for a minute and look at sound judgment. If you were the cops, what would you do? Presumably, your decision whether to let things calm down inside before going in might depend on whether there are innocent people inside that are being threatened by the suspect, no?

3. It’s also important to keep in mind that this decision occurs in a context of overall public lack of trust in the police, and particularly in its discretion using lethal force. It’s interesting that the timing didn’t bait the Supreme Court into saying something about this more generally, or even attempt to answer the question of mentally ill suspects for the future. Perhaps this reluctance stems from their willingness to give the police a wide berth of discretion.

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  1. Were the police under pressure to "resolve" the situation? Or would their superiors have supported their waiting this out a bit? One wonders. I have not read the record. We ask the police to substitute for a viable mental health system …

  2. Definitely some interesting thoughts here. Perhaps it says even more about how we treat the mentally ill in this country rather than how we're treating the police. Thanks for sharing your insight on this.

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