U.S. Supreme Court holds officers entitled to qualified immunity after shooting mentally ill individual holding a knife

CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, ET AL. v. SHEEHAN No. 13–1412  (U.S. May 18, 2015)

This is a §1983 and ADA case where the U.S. Supreme Court held officers who shot a mentally ill individual who attacked them with a knife were entitled to qualified immunity, but left unanswered the ADA question of whether they must have factored in a “reasonable accommodation” in life threatening situations.

Sheehan lived in a group home for individuals with mental illness. At one point she became hostile and threatened to kill her social worker. When officers Reynolds and Holder arrived to escort her to a temporary facility for evaluation, she grabbed a knife.  The officers exited the room to give her time to calm down.  Without evaluating whether the situation called for any other special considerations due to the group home environment, the officers reentered the room. When pepper spray proved ineffective, they shot Sheehan several times. Sheehan survived and sued under §1983 and the ADA claiming the officers failed to provide a reasonable accommodation during the arrest which would not have resulted in the need to shoot her. The trial court granted the Defendants summary judgment holding officers did not need to evaluate such an accommodation in a life threatening situation. The 9th Circuit held that the ADA applied and that a jury must decide whether San Francisco should have accommodated Sheehan. The court also held that Reynolds and Holder are not entitled to qualified immunity. The County and officers filed this appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court granted Certiorari.

After going through detailed facts, the Court first held that when it granted cert. the questioned presented by the County as to the ADA claim was whether officers must provide a reasonable accommodation in a life threatening situation. However, the briefing only addressed whether Sheehan qualified as disabled. The Court seemed to take offense to the change in argument and determined the County did not properly brief the question on which writ of cert. was granted.  Therefore, the Court would not address the ADA arguments. [Comment: The dicta seems to indicate the Court felt the original question asked was the most important one and wanted to rule on that question.   The briefed question presupposed the ADA applies and it appears the Court did not want to make any ruling with that implication.]  As to the individual officer’s qualified immunity, the Court held the 9th Circuit used the proper test, but came to the wrong conclusion. The first entry to the room was not unconstitutional as officers may enter a room without a warrant to render emergency aide.  The officers were then faced with a discretionary situation and feared Sheehan would continue to pose an immediate threat. In the Court’s mind there was no “doubt that had Sheehan not been disabled, the officers could have opened her door the second time without violating any constitutional right.” Additionally, the Court held “because the two entries were part of a single, continuous search or seizure, the officers were not required to justify the continuing emergency with respect to the second entry.” The Court held that after opening the door a second time, the use of pepper spray, then firearms was reasonable under the circumstances. The Court did a detailed analysis distinguishing the 9th Circuit’s use of cases in determining that the law was also not clearly established in this type of circumstance. [Comment: For any lawyers with law enforcement qualified immunity matters, this is a helpful case.]

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Kagan, J., joined. Justice Breyer took no part in the consideration or decision of this petition. The docket sheet with attorney information can be found here.