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Supreme Court says officers who shot disturbed woman immune from lawsuit

Justices say it remains an open question what Fourth Amendment protections a mentally disturbed person has

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that San Francisco police cannot be sued by a mentally disturbed woman who was shot repeatedly during a 2008 confrontation, but the justices declined to rule on whether the officers involved were required to use less forceful methods.

Teresa Sheehan, who was suffering a schizophrenic episode during the incident, had threatened to kill her social worker and went at police officers with a knife when they shot five times in her room at a group home.

Her lawyers said that police had a duty to use less confrontational tactics under provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which demands “reasonable accommodations” for people with mental illnesses.

The court found that the officers should not be subject to the lawsuit because they were covered by qualified immunity, which protects public officials from being sued absent a clear violation of an established constitutional right. 

But the opinion did not answer the potentially farther-reaching question of how the ADA plays into how police are obliged to handle armed, threatening individuals suffering from mental disorders.

In Sheehan’s case, police were called to her group home after she threatened to kill her social worker on Aug. 7, 2008. 

Officers arrived at the door to her room with the intention of taking her to another mental facility for treatment. But according to court papers, she repeated her threat to murder her social worker and brandished a knife. The officers forcibly entered her room, pepper-spraying her.

“After pepper spray proved ineffective, the officers shot Sheehan multiple times,” a court summary of the case reads.

She later sued San Francisco police for, among other things, violating the ADA by arresting her without accommodating her disability.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said justices couldn’t take up the disability rights issues because it hadn’t been fully considered by the lower court. The court kicked that part of the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for further deliberation.

Lower courts have been split on how the ADA should affect police conduct when dealing with a mentally ill person deemed a public risk.

The Supreme Court said it remains an open question what Fourth Amendment protections from illegal search and seizure a mentally disturbed person has when police answer calls for help from a caregiver.

The case comes in the wake of several high profile incidents of police officers shooting, sometimes fatally, individuals whose erratic or violent behavior is linked to mental illness.

“At most, the court on Monday declared that it was not clearly established seven years ago, when the San Francisco incident occurred, that the Fourth Amendment requires police to take special precautionary steps to accommodate the mental disability of a person whom they are trying to subdue,” wrote Lyle Denniston, an analyst with court watcher SCOTUSblog.

“Because that was not the law at the time, the two officers had legal immunity from the woman’s claim that the Fourth Amendment require such an accommodation,” he wrote.

But the dilemma of how police should react to violent incidents involving mentally disturbed people is one likely to come up again, said Jamie Fellner, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch who focuses on U.S. issues.

“The facts of the case point to the need for increased training in crisis intervention for the police so that the need for force can be minimized when dealing with someone who has a mental illness and is violent,” she said.  

Jennifer Mathis, a lawyer at the Bezalon Center for Mental Health Law, said it was very clear that the police officers involved should have taken another tack when dealing with Sheehan.

“There are well established methods of accommodating people with mental illness that were not followed in this case, and we hope the court with recognize that if and when it does address the ADA issue,” she said.

With wire services

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