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Argument preview: Police and disability rights

At 11 a.m. on Monday, the Supreme Court will hold one hour of oral argument on the duties that federal law imposes on police officers in dealing with a mentally disabled person who may be armed and violent.  Arguing for the local government and two police officers in San Francisco v. Sheehan will be Deputy City Attorney Christine Van Aken, with twenty minutes of time.  Representing the federal government as an amicus partly supporting the city will be Deputy Solicitor General Ian H. Gershengorn, with ten minutes.  Teresa Sheehan, a San Francisco resident with a mental disability, will be represented by Leonard J. Feldman of the Seattle firm of Peterson Wampold Rosato Luna Knopp, with thirty minutes.  Only eight Justices will participate in the case; Justice Stephen G. Breyer is not taking part because his brother, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, was the trial judge in the case.


Difficult issues of police policy and humane concern confront officers when they attempt to subdue a mentally disabled person whom they know is armed and has made threats.  Aside from immediate safety issues, both for themselves and the person whom they are attempting to subdue, the officers confront potential legal risks under the federal disability rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and under the Constitution.

Those challenges come together before the Supreme Court in a case growing out of a violent incident about seven years ago in a San Francisco group home for mentally disabled individuals.  Teresa Sheehan, one of the residents there, was shot five or six times, but survived and then sued the officers involved.  The case raises issues under both the ADA and the Fourth Amendment.

The ADA, first passed by Congress in 1990, is a broad civil rights law that seeks to protect disabled persons, including through a guarantee (under the Act’s Title II) that they may take part equally in public programs or services provided by any federal, state, or local government agency.

The Act does specify that there is no participation requirement when an individual “poses a threat to the health or safety of others.”  In deciding whether such a threat exists, government officials are required to make an individual assessment based upon current medical knowledge, to determine the nature of the risk and whether policies could be reasonably modified to ease that risk.

Another part of the law says that an accommodation need not be made if doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the service or program.   While a public agency can make safety arrangements, it must ensure that they are based on actual, and not merely speculative, risks or on generalities about individuals who are disabled.

The federal appeals courts are split on whether the ADA’s Title II applies at all to police arrests of disabled persons, and, if so, what tactics the officers may use in such encounters — such as delaying a confrontation or waiting for back-up support.   At issue in the case now before the Supreme Court is the approach of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on applying the ADA, as well as on what tactics would be considered reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

In August 2008, a city social worker made an attempt to check up on Teresa Sheehan, a mentally disabled woman living in a group home in San Francisco.  The worker planned to take Sheehan for a current psychiatric evaluation.  He let himself into her room with a key, apparently without first getting permission.

Sheehan told him to leave and, he said later, brandished a knife and threatened to kill him.  He called the police and took other residents out of the home. Two San Francisco police officers, Kimberly Reynolds and Katherine Holder, responded and learned of the situation.  The social worker asked them to help get Sheehan to the facility for the planned test.  He told them that Sheehan had not been taking her medicines, and was not taking care of herself physically.

The officers knocked on the door of Sheehan’s room and announced themselves.  Using the social worker’s key, they unlocked the door and entered.  Sheehan was lying on the bed, but apparently got up suddenly.  The officers later said that she grabbed a knife, told them to get out, and said she did not need any help.  She allegedly also threatened to kill the two police officers, and said they had no warrant to arrest her.

The officers left the room and called for back-up support.  Without waiting for other officers to arrive, according to the record in the case, the two officers decided to force their way back into Sheehan’s room, fearing that she might try to escape and might have other weapons.

With guns drawn, they went in.  They testified later that she came at them with a knife, and that they tried to subdue her with pepper spray but that she kept advancing toward them with the knife in hand.  The officers fired their weapons, hitting Sheehan five or six times.  She survived the wounds.

She was prosecuted on two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of assaulting a police officer, and one count of making a criminal threat to the social worker.  A jury found her not guilty on the threat charge, and could not reach a verdict on the assault charges.  The city decided not to attempt to retry her.

Sheehan then filed a civil rights lawsuit against the local government and the two officers, claiming violations of her rights under the ADA and the Fourth Amendment, as well as violations of several state laws.  The trial judge ruled for the city and the officers on summary judgment.

Sheehan appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  It ruled that the officers’ first entry into Sheehan’s room did not violate the Fourth Amendment, because it was justified as an emergency situation.   It ruled, however, that a jury could find that the second entry was unreasonable because of the aggressive tactics by the officers in forcing their way in without warning, provoking a confrontation with Sheehan.

It also ruled that a jury could find that the second, forced entry violated the ADA, because the officers did not take into account Sheehan’s mental disability in choosing to use force to re-enter her room.

The city government, joined by the police officers, appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on both the ADA and Fourth Amendment rulings.

Teresa Sheehan’s lawyers chose not to respond, but the Court asked for a response, and it granted review on both issues on November 25, with Justice Breyer recused.

Briefs on the merits

The merits brief of the city government and the two officers sought to exclude Teresa Sheehan entirely from protection under the ADA, relying on the provision in the Act that takes away the need to accommodate a disabled person who poses a direct threat or risk of threat to others.  Such a person, the city contended, is not a “qualified” individual under the Act’s terms.

The filing does not argue that the ADA never applies to police arrests of a disabled person, but it does rely upon the ability of police officers to recognize a safety risk in such an encounter.   The two officers concluded that Sheehan had to be disarmed and detained immediately, the brief said, and that conclusion was “objectively reasonable at the time they made it.”

Extending the ACA to individuals in those circumstances, the city contended, “would require police officers to determine whether violent conduct is caused by mental illness before responding to immediate safety risks.”   As to potential “accommodations” in these circumstances, the city said postponing a confrontation would in no way reduce the risk to Sheehan’s safety and to the safety of others.   The public, as well as the two officers on the scene, might well have been at risk at that moment, the city argued.

On Sheehan’s Fourth Amendment claims, the city relied primarily upon a claim of qualified immunity for the two officers.  It was not clearly established at the time of this incident, the city asserted, that the emergency exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement did not apply in the circumstances that existed.

There also is no precedent, the brief said, for the Ninth Circuit’s separate holding that the Fourth Amendment barred them from using force to defend themselves when they had provoked Sheehan’s attack.  That part of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, it added, conflicts with decisions of other federal appeals courts.

The Justice Department entered the case in partial support of the city government and the two police officers, seeking to make sure that although the ADA applies to arrests of mentally disabled persons, the officers’ duty under the ADA to accommodate such a person is relaxed when the officers — relying on “objective evidence” — know of “significant safety concerns.”

If there is such evidence at the time of the incident, according to the government’s merits brief, a modification of normal police practice “will not qualify as reasonable and so need not be provided under the ADA.”

The federal government commented: “When police officers arrest an individual with a disability who is armed and violent, any deviation from ordinary law enforcement tactics will generally present very real safety risks.”  While it said that a modification of such practices would not be required by the ADA in “the run of cases involving this type of arrest situation,” an individual suing in a particular case “should remain free to show that special circumstances rendered a modification reasonable on the particular facts.”

This position differs from the city’s argument that the facts of this case put Sheehan outside any protection of the ADA.  Rather than support that argument, the federal government urged the Court to send this case back to the appeals court to decide whether Sheehan’s lawyers can salvage her ADA claim.

The federal government, however, provides full support for the city’s argument that the two police officers in this case are entitled to qualified immunity to Sheehan’s Fourth Amendment claim “because they violated no clearly established law.”

While the Ninth Circuit was right in finding that the officers could enter Sheehan’s room without a warrant because of the emergency situation, the government said, it was wrong that it had been established in law that the officers could be held liable for provoking the confrontation, when the person involved could foreseeably resist their efforts to end the emergency.

But, the federal government’s brief contended that the Supreme Court need not use this case to spell out when police might be liable under the Fourth Amendment for allegedly provoking a confrontation, saying that the city had not pursued that in its appeal to the Justices.   The case, on the Fourth Amendment level, can be easily resolved on the qualified immunity rationale for lack of clearly established law on the point.

The merits brief for Teresa Sheehan sought to put all of the blame for the “nearly deadly confrontation” in this case upon the two officers, arguing that the police did not make a reasonable attempt to use standard police practices to defuse the situation and did not even comply with their own department’s policy for handling incidents involving “barricaded suspects.”

Sheehan urged the Court to protect mentally disabled individuals from police discrimination by requiring police to make reasonable accommodations for them, and insisted that police carry out searches and seizures in a reasonable way.   When officers cause “a violent and potentially deadly confrontation,” as in this case, Sheehan argued, they have no claim to qualified immunity under the Fourth Amendment.

On the ADA claim, Sheehan disputes that she is outside the shield of the Act on the city’s theory that she was too much a threat to the officers to be entitled to any accommodation.  It makes no sense to exclude someone like Sheehan from the Act’s safeguards when that person’s mental disability is the very reason that police were interacting with that person in the first place.  On the facts, Sheehan contended that her aggressive response was limited to “individuals who had entered her room without permission.”

The city and the police officers drew amicus support from several associations representing local governments and local police forces.  Teresa Sheehan was supported by disability rights and mental health groups, civil rights organizations, and police accountability projects.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Argument preview: Police and disability rights, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 21, 2015, 12:03 AM),