Supreme Court Action: Qualified Immunity with a little ADA on the Side

It’s getting to that time of the year when the Supreme Court starts to issue opinions in droves.  The Court issued six opinions today.  The opinion that will likely generate the most news is City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan (13-1412).  That case concerned two questions:  whether the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) applied to police arresting an individual suffering from a mental illness, and whether the officers involved in the incident were entitled to qualified immunity under the circumstances.

Here is a summary of the relevant facts.  More detail is in the opinion.  Theresa Sheehan lived in a group home for those with mental illnesses.  Her social worker in the building, Heath Hodge, attempted a well-being check.  He knocked on Sheehan’s door with no response from  her.  He then used his key to enter Sheehan’s room.  Sheehan sprung from her bed and yelled for Hodge to get out and threatening him with a knife.  Hodge left and called police for assistance.  Officers Holder and Reynolds responded.  They knocked on Sheehan’s door and announced themselves as police officers.  They received no response and proceeded to use Hodge’s key to enter the room.  Sheehan announced rather aggressively that she had a knife and threatened to kill both officers.  They retreated and called for backup.

Both officers re-entered the room rather than waiting for backup to arrive.  The Court notes that “they did not pause to consider whether Sheehan’s disability should be accommodated.”  Sheehan again threatened violence.  Officer Reynolds pepper-sprayed Sheehan and that was ineffective.  Officer Reynolds shot Sheehan twice.  A third officer from backup kicked the knife out of Sheehan’s hand.

Sheehan ultimately sued San Francisco under the ADA for not accommodating her disability.  She also sued Holder and Reynolds in their personal capacities for violating her Fourth Amendment rights.  The District Court held that the ADA did not apply to police in these circumstances and that Sheehan’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated.  The Ninth Circuit vacated in part holding that it was up to a jury to determined whether the police should have accommodated Sheehan.  A jury could have also determined whether officers needlessly provoked Sheehan through the second confrontation.  As the Court stated:

The panel further found that it was clearly established that an officer cannot “forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill subject who had been acting irrationally and had threatened anyone who entered when there was no objective need for immediate entry.”

San Francisco appealed to the Supreme Court.  The Court dismissed the grant of certiorari as to the question of whether the ADA “requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.”  None of the parties actually argued the point with all assuming that the ADA did apply. San Francisco argued instead that Sheehan did not qualify for an accommodation under ADA regulations.  The Court was not happy with the change in strategy compared to the question it certified.

The second question about qualified immunity was decided in favor of the police, though that decision was not without controversy.  More on that in a moment.  The Court held that the police in this case did not violate a statutory or constitutional right clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.  The Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit in the two entries did not violate any clearly established right or that the second entry would have violated any constitutional rights had Sheehan not been disabled.  The use of force under the circumstances was also reasonable.  This, however, did not end the issue:

The real question, then, is whether, despite these dangerous circumstances, the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they decided to reopen Sheehan’s door rather than attempting to accommodate her disability. Here we come to another problem. San Francisco, whose attorneys represent Reynolds and Holder, devotes scant briefing to this question. Instead, San Francisco argues almost exclusively that even if it is assumed that there was a Fourth Amendment violation, the right was not clearly established. This Court, of course, could decide the constitutional question anyway. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U. S. 223, 242 (2009) (recognizing discretion). But because this question has not been adequately briefed, we decline to do so. See id., at 239. Rather, we simply decide whether the officers’ failure to accommodate Sheehan’s illness violated clearly established law. It did not.

The Court analyzed the precedent used by the Ninth Circuit and concluded that it did not justify a remand to a jury on the question of immunity.

Justice Scalia wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.  He agreed that the Court was right to dismiss the certiorari on the first question as improvidently granted.  He stated that on that basis the Court should not have addressed the second question.  He stated:

[H]owever—before we considered and deliberated upon the second QP but after petitioners’ principal brief made clear that they would not address the Circuit conflict presented by the first QP—we had no more assurance that this question was decided incorrectly than we do for the thousands of other uncertworthy questions we refuse to hear each Term. Many of them have undoubtedly been decided wrongly, but we are not, and for well over a century have not been, a court of error correction.

Take that for what it is.  Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor.  Justice Scalia filed the aforementioned  opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part and was joined by Justice Kagan.  Justice Breyer did not participate in the case.

I’ll write about the other cases tomorrow, and if time permits, some interesting features I discovered in Google Scholar’s  case law database.


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