The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left a lower court to decide whether two San Francisco police officers violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when they entered a mentally ill woman’s bedroom and shot her as she attacked them with a knife in 2008.
The court did find the two officers were immune from liability under the Fourth Amendment for entering Teresa Sheehan’s bedroom.
In the 6-2 decision released Monday morning, the high court granted the two officers qualified immunity on claims they violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered the room, but declined to rule on whether the officers failed to provide reasonable accommodations for the woman’s disability under the ADA.
Christine Van Aken, an attorney with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, said the city was gratified with the court’s ruling that the officers were not personally liable for any potential violations of Sheehan’s constitutional rights.
But regarding the court’s decision not to rule on the ADA question, she said, “We’re disappointed about that, but we’re prepared to defend the case going forward.”
Sheehan survived the Aug. 7, 2008, shooting and filed a federal civil rights suit the next year. The suit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of San Francisco, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it, finding that the ADA applies to arrests.
Sheehan was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and lived in a group home in San Francisco’s Mission District at the time. The officers responded when a social worker became concerned that Sheehan, then 56, had stopped taking her medication, changing her clothes or eating, according to the Supreme Court ruling.
When the social worker knocked on her door and didn’t receive an answer, he used his key to enter. Sheehan sprang out of bed yelling, “Get out of here! You don’t have a warrant! I have a knife, and I’ll kill you if I have to.”
San Francisco police Sgt. Kimberly Reynolds and Officer Kathrine Holder responded to the group home and knocked on the door, telling Sheehan they were there to help her. The officers entered the room when she didn’t answer, and she threatened them with a 5-inch kitchen knife, according to the ruling.
The officers retreated, shut the door and called for backup. But, worried Sheehan may gather more weapons or escape out a back window, they re-entered the room. Sheehan charged at them with the knife. The officers used pepper spray in attempt to subdue her, but she kept coming and they shot her multiple times.
A majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito states that the actions of the two officers in entering the room and later using lethal force was reasonable under the circumstances. The ruling leaves open the question of whether there was a Fourth Amendment violation in the officers entering the room a second time, but found that the officers’ failure to accommodate her illness did not violate clearly established law.
But the court declined entirely to address whether the protections against discrimination for people with mental illnesses provided by the ADA applies to arrests.
The court decided that such individuals may in fact be due special considerations in police contact, and acknowledged there was disagreement in Circuit courts on this issue but declined to rule on it because the case was inadequately argued by San Francisco.
A dissenting opinion by Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan accuses the city of not properly arguing that case by design. They argue the court would not have taken the case without the ADA aspect, but instead ruled only on the Fourth Amendment claims — an aspect of the case the high court would not have taken up on its own merits.
“I would not encourage future litigants to seek review premised on arguments they never plan to press, secure in the knowledge that once they find a toehold on this Court’s docket, we will consider whatever workaday arguments they choose to present in their merits briefs,” Scalia wrote.
Van Aken said that the city attorney’s office never was seeking a broader ruling on whether the ADA applied to any arrests, but simply argued that it had no application to this case, or other cases when officers are dealing with such violent behavior. She said at no point did the city change its arguments regarding the ADA.
The high court ruling appears to allow Sheehan to take her case back to a lower court for a trial on the claim that the officers violated the ADA by not adequately taking her illness into account.
Sheehan’s attorney John Burris called the ruling “bittersweet,” saying that the ADA portion of the case is intact and he expects it will be coming back to a jury trial.
“In many ways Ms. Sheehan will get her day in court,” Burris said.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is the brother of Charles Breyer, recused himself from participating in the case.
Scott Morris, Bay City News