Supreme Court Sidesteps Application of the ADA to Arrests, Grants Immunity

by | May 24, 2015

San Francisco police officers responded to a community-based group home where Teresa Sheehan was behaving erratically and threatening staff members. Sheehan was suffering from acute schizophrenia. A social worker asked for police help to transport her to a secure mental health facility.

When the two officers first entered the room, they saw that Sheehan had a knife. The officers backed out of the room. However, concerned that she might have an escape route, they went back into the room before backup arrived.

When they re-entered the room, Sheehan lunged at them with a knife. The officers shot her. She survived and sued the police.

The question initially presented to the Supreme Court was whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires officers to provide “reasonable accommodations” and take special precautions when attempting to detain or arrest an armed and mentally ill person.

The ADA mandates that police (and other government actors) must generally make reasonable accommodations to avoid discriminating against persons with disabilities. Mental health advocates argue that police may use unnecessary force if they fail to consider a person’s mental illness. Sheehan’s lawyer asserts that the officers could have used less aggressive tactics, such as de-escalating the situation through non-confrontational verbal negotiation or waiting for additional officers to arrive.

Lawyers for the officers argued that officers must place safety considerations before disability accommodations: “When mental illness manifests itself in unpredictable, violent behavior as it did in this case, officers must make split-second decisions that protect the public and themselves from harm.”

The trial court sided with the officers, ruling that it would be impractical and unreasonable for officers to comply with the ADA when attempting to take a violent and armed mentally ill person into custody. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial court should have allowed a jury to decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to wait and use less confrontational tactics. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, recognizing a split in lower appellate courts considering the ADA issue.

At oral argument, Justice Alito noted that a threshold question seemed to have been ignored by both parties: What does discrimination mean in the context of police activity? Justice Sotomayor asked whether the city was arguing that the ADA should not even apply to police arrests, a question that Justice Scalia suggested was the only real issue before the Court in this case. At the end of the questioning, it appeared that the Court wondered whether it was even possible for officers to negotiate and de-escalate a situation where a violent mentally ill person came at them with a knife.

In its decision, the Supreme Court sidestepped the question of whether the ADA applies to cops on the street dealing with persons covered by the Act. The Court noted that the City of San Francisco switched legal arguments during the course of the case. It had first argued that the ADA does not apply to “officers on-the-street responses … whether or not those calls involve subjects with mental disabilities, prior to the officer’s securing the scene and ensuring that there is not a threat to human life.” Later, however, the City of San Francisco relied on a different argument: that the Act doesn’t apply to any person who is a “direct threat” to others.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they entered Gail Sheehan’s room on both the first and second contacts. The Court also held that the officers were justified in using deadly force to stop Sheehan’s advance with a knife. The federal appellate court split decision on application of the ADA to taking mentally ill persons into custody remains unresolved. Watch for the issue to arise in other cases.

Law enforcement executives understand that as treatment dollars shrink and less mental health treatment is available, police officers become community mental health workers. Jails see more and more mentally ill arrestees, many of whom have acute or chronic mental health issues that could be much better addressed with proper treatment resources.

Mental health advocates want more training for officers in how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations and how to recognize and respond to persons with mental illnesses. They argue that an officer who does not understand that a person is in psychiatric crisis may respond with force when some other intervention might be effective. Law enforcement executives share the desire for additional training, but are frustrated by the lack of training dollars and treatment resources.

Experience in many police agencies shows that crisis intervention training for police works. However, the same funding challenges that led to cutbacks in treatment dollars apply to available dollars for police crisis intervention training. Deep cuts in mental health treatment funding have simply transferred the responsibility of mental illness crisis intervention to street cops.

City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 2015 WL 2340839 (U.S. 2015)

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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