Supreme Court Declines to Decide (Most of) Disability Arrest Case

BLOG POST | May 20, 2015

In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court declined to decide one of the most important questions this term for state and local government: whether Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires police officers to accommodate suspects who are armed, violent, and mentally ill when bringing them into custody. But the Court held that the officers in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehanwere entitled to qualified immunity.

When police officers entered Teresa Sheehan’s room in a group home for persons with mental illness to take her to a hospital for psychiatric care, she threatened to kill them with a knife she held, so they retreated. Before backup arrived, the officers decided to reenter her room to prevent her from gathering more weapons or escaping. Upon reentry, Sheehan still had the knife in her hand and yelled for them to leave. One officer pepper sprayed Sheehan but she refused to drop the knife. The officers then shot her multiple times but she survived.

Title II of the ADA provides that qualified individuals with a disability must be able to participate in the “services, programs, or activities of a public entity,” and that their disability must be reasonably accommodated. The Ninth Circuit held that the ADA applies to arrests and that a jury should decide whether the police officers should have accommodated Sheehan by, for example, respecting her comfort zone, engaging in non-threatening communications, and using the passage of time to defuse the situation.

Based on its arguments to the Ninth Circuit and its certiorari petition, the Court expected San Francisco to argue that Title II doesn’t apply to arrests at least until the scene is secure. Instead, San Francisco argued that it does but Sheehan wasn’t a qualified individual with a disability because she was a “direct threat” to the officers. Because the parties did not have a clear dispute over whether Title II of the ADA applies to arrests the Court dismissed this issue as improvidently granted.

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”

The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision denying the officers qualified immunity because they reentered her room rather than attempted to accommodate her disability. According to the Court, even assuming that the Ninth Circuit’s reading of precedent is true and “any reasonable, competent officer on notice that it is unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill suspect who had been acting irrationally and had threatened anyone who entered when there was no objective need for immediate entry,” no precedent clearly establishes there was no objective need for immediate entry here where Sheehan could have gathered more weapons or escaped. 

Stay tuned; the Court is likely to again hear a case involving the question of whether and when the ADA applies to arrests. 

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case, which ICMA joined, pointing out that no conclusive evidence indicates police officers taking specialized approaches to responding to incidents involving the mentally ill reduce the rate or severity of injuries to mentally ill suspects. The SLLC also argued the officers in this case should be granted qualified immunity.   

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