The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in San Francisco v. Sheehan on May 18, 2015. The case originated from a violent incident between a mentally unstable woman and police officers in a group home in San Francisco in 2008. The woman, Sheehan, threatened a social worker at the home with a knife and locked herself in her room. The worker called 911 for help, and two officers responded. They entered Sheehan’s room with a key provided by the social worker, but were also threatened by Sheehan. The officers retreated and called for back up. Judging the situation not stable enough to wait for the back up to arrive, the officers at the scene re-entered Sheehan’s room and used pepper spray to attempt to subdue her. When that failed and Sheehan continued to charge toward the officers, they fired their guns, wounding her.
Sheehan sued the City of San Francisco for violations of her Fourth Amendment rights and for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, she claimed that the officers’ entry of her room was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and that because she is mentally ill (Sheehan has schizophrenia) she is entitled to accommodation by police officers under both the Fourth Amendment and the ADA when they interact with her.
With respect to the Fourth Amendment claims, the court held that seven years ago when the incident occurred, there was no requirement or precedent that police officers incorporate special precautionary procedures when arresting or subduing a mentally disabled person. Given that context, the officers were entitled to legal immunity regarding that claim. The Court also held that the entry into Sheehan’s room both times by the officers was reasonable and therefore not a violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Court did not address the question of whether the ADA is a separate basis under which mentally disabled people are entitled to reasonable accommodations from law enforcement. The Court declined to address the issue because in its view the matter had not been fully considered by the lower court. This part of the case was therefore remanded back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Although the City of San Francisco can claim victory–the legal immunity of its officers was upheld–the high court failed to address the key issue of whether mentally ill people have a right to special accommodations under either the Fourth Amendment or the ADA. The question is particularly timely in light of national scrutiny on police conduct and excessive police force. Some advocacy groups estimate that half of all people shot to death by police each year have mental health issues. Recent cases caught on cell phone video of mentally ill people in confrontations with police that end up with the person shot and killed have sparked controversy. Some argue that the police cannot provide special precautions and accommodations in situations involving exigent circumstances–e.g. where a person is armed and dangerous. Making accommodations when trying to arrest a person who is mentally ill and violent may not be possible they argue, but accommodations could be made during less dangerous interactions such as investigations.
Others argue that better training is needed for the situations in which exigent circumstances arise in order to ensure that mitigation techniques appropriate for mentally ill people are utilized. It is precisely those encounters with mentally ill people who are acting violently, and who police are attempting to arrest, that often lead to shots being fired and suspects being killed.