Supreme Court remands ADA, police case

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San Francisco raises ‘direct threat’ defense

The Supreme Court will not issue a ruling on the year’s most highly anticipated Americans with Disabilities Act case, leaving for another day the question of whether the law applies to police encounters with people with mental disabilities.

The case centers on Teresa Sheehan, a woman with schizophrenia who was shot seven times after allegedly threatening two San Francisco police officers with a knife at a nursing home in August 2008. Having survived, Sheehan sued the city of San Francisco, on the basis that the officers violated the ADA by reentering the room without taking her disabilities into account.

The District court ruled for the city. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed, finding that the officers violated the ADA by failing to reasonably accommodate her.

The city of San Francisco appealed to the Supreme Court, on the basis that the ADA imposes no requirement on police officers to accommodate people with disabilities when making arrests. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case on this question, or so it thought.

At oral arguments, the city of San Francisco narrowed its argument. It conceded that the ADA applied to police encounters and instead argued the police officers were not required to accommodate Sheehan individually because she posed a “direct threat,” under what is known as the ADA’s direct threat defense.

In light of the change in the city’s position, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that it should not make a ruling on any part of the ADA case, neither the threshold question of whether the ADA applies to police encounters or the applicability of the direct threat defense to Sheehan’s case.

“Whether the statutory language…applies to arrests is an important question that would benefit from briefing and an adversary presentation,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a six-member majority. “But San Francisco, the United States as amicus curiae, and Sheehan all argue (or at least accept) that (the ADA) applies to arrest. No one argues the contrary view.

“As a result, we do not think that it would be prudent to decide the question in this case.”

With this determination, the case will return to the 9th Circuit, for additional arguments on San Francisco’s direct threat defense.

In addition to the ADA question, the Supreme Court ruled the officers cannot be held civilly liable for violating Sheehan’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In coming to the conclusion that it was “reasonable” for the officers to reenter the room, the Supreme Court pointed to the exigent circumstances exemption to the warrant requirement. This exception includes a variety of situations, including, in regard to Sheehan’s case, when there is a threat that the person in the building will gain access to weapons or escape.

The majority also stated the officer’s use of deadly force against Sheehan was reasonable.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan dissented from the majority’s Fourth Amendment analysis, on the basis that they thought the Supreme Court should have remanded this aspect of the decision as well.

Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself from the decision because his brother participated in the case at the District Court.