The Supreme Court heard testimony March 23 in a case that could redefine the role of the Americans with Disabilities Act in police encounters.
The case, which the Supreme Court agreed to hear in November, asks two questions:1) Whether the ADA applies to arrests and 2) If the ADA does apply, whether the police can raise the “direct threat defense” in the case of Teresa Sheehan, a woman with schizophrenia who filed the lawsuit.
In August 2008, San Francisco police responded to a call from Sheehan’s social worker, who sought to have her involuntarily committed. Upon arrival, Sheehan threatened the officers with a knife.
The police left the room and requested backup, but before backup arrived, the officers reentered the room, where Sheehan again threatened them with the knife. The officers shot Sheehan five times. She survived.
The factual dispute centers on the police’s decision to reenter the room, as opposed to take other measures to deescalate the situation. Sheehan’s attorneys argue that a jury could find that the officers’ actions demonstrated a failure to take her disability into account, meaning that they violated the ADA’s mandate to provide “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities.
In earlier court proceedings, the city of San Francisco argued that the ADA does not apply to police encounters at all.
At the Supreme Court, however, the city abandoned this argument. Instead, it contended that the ADA does apply in Sheehan’s case, but that the police officers were excused from the reasonable accommodation requirement under what is known as the direct threat defense, which is raised when the person’s actions threaten the safety of others or herself.
This disparity between the city’s position drew the consternation of some of the justices, especially Justice Scalia, who argued the city was presenting a different case than the argument the court agreed to hear, as described by Scotusblog.
“There’s a technical word for this. It’s called bait-and-switch,” Scalia said at oral arguments, the Associated Press reported.
Most of the justices, however, appeared skeptical of how the police could have accommodated Sheehan in the encounter. In regard to the direct threat defense, the Obama Administration argued that the police should have to reasonably accommodate suspects where the threat is “contained and visible.”
Justice Kennedy did not look favorably at the proposed standard.
“I think the standard you’ve just proposed gives no guidance at all to an officer faced with a violent person,” Justice Kennedy said at the argument.
Only eight justices participated in the hearings. Justice Breyer recused himself from the case because his brother oversaw earlier proceedings in the case.
In an amicus brief, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Disability Rights Network, the Arc and 16 other civil rights groups underscored the tragic consequences that arise when police fail to accommodate people with disabilities. Every year, police shoot and kill about 375 to 500 suspects. Of these suspects, half are generally regarded as having a mental illness.
The brief highlights the unique communication challenges faced when people with certain disabilities encounter police, such as people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with epilepsy, diabetes or cerebral palsy, or who have autism.
“Hundreds of Americans with disabilities die every year in police encounters, and many more are seriously injured,” the amicus brief stated. “Many of these deaths and injuries are needless, the tragic result of police failing to use well established and effective law enforcement practices that take disability into account.
Such practices are widely understood and widely used in police encounters to protect officers, the public, and people with disabilities.”
Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.