U.S. Supreme Court examines whether police interactions with people with mental illness violates the Americans With Disabilities Act

Teresa Sheehan was a woman with a history of schizophrenia who lived at a group home in San Francisco, California. In 2008, she threatened to kill her social worker, who in turn reported the threat to police so she could receive inpatient treatment at a psychiatric hospital. When local police officers arrived at Ms. Sheehan’s group home, they entered her locked room with a key. She came toward the officers with a knife, so they closed the door and called for backup. The officers said they were not sure whether Sheehan could escape via another route, and were concerned that she might have other weapons inside. The officers forced their way in and attempted to subdue her with pepper spray. But she continued to come toward them, threatening them with the knife. The officers shot her five times, and she survived.

Ms. Sheehan later sued the city of San Francisco over the incident. In the case, City and County of San Francisco, California, et al., Petitioners v. Teresa Sheehan, a federal district court decided that it would be unreasonable to make officers comply with the ADA before protecting potential victims from a violent person with psychiatric illness. Yet the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a jury should decide whether officers should have approached the situation less aggressively. On May 23, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case on appeal from the Ninth Circuit.

Ms. Sheehan’s attorneys argued that police could have used less violent approaches to her threatening behavior, especially considering her history of mental illness. Her lawyers have further proposed that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 required police to take special precautions when trying to arrest armed and dangerous people with mental illness. The city of San Francisco agreed that the ADA required officers to make “reasonable accommodations” to avoid discrimination against people with psychiatric illness, but the city contended that the ADA’s regulations do not apply if individuals pose a significant danger.

The case raises two important legal questions. First, and most relevant to psychiatric discussions, did the police officers’ aggressive confrontation with Ms. Sheehan qualify as discrimination under the ADA? Second, did their forcible entry into Ms. Sheehan’s living space violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable search and seizure”? The Supreme Court will be releasing its opinion shortly.

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