Supreme Court to hear police, ADA lawsuit

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News from the U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court announced November 25 that it will review a case with significant implications for the applicability of disability discrimination law to police encounters for people with mental illness.

The case centers on a police encounter involving Teresa Sheehan, a woman in her mid-50s with schizophrenia living in a San Francisco group home. On August 7, 2008, her social worker sought to have her involuntarily committed, and called the San Francisco police for assistance.

When two officers arrived at the group home, Sheehan grabbed a knife and threatened to kill them. The officers left the room and requested backup. Before the backup arrived, the police drew their weapons and reentered the room, where Sheehan again threatened them with the knife.

The officers shot her five to six times. Sheehan survived, but needed two hip replacement surgeries.

In a lawsuit, Sheehan’s attorneys argued that the police officers’ decision to reenter the room violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, among other violations.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled against Sheehan on all the claims. In February 2014, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit partially reversed the decision, finding that the District Court could not rule as a matter of law on either the 4th Amendment or the ADA claim, meaning that the questions must be determined by a jury.

In regard to the ADA claim, the appellate courts are split on whether the ADA applies to police encounters. While the 5th Circuit ruled that it does not, the 9th Circuit adopted the approach of the 7th and 10th Circuits.

“We agree with the majority of circuits to have addressed the question that Title II (of the ADA) applies to arrests,” the 9th Circuit wrote. “The ADA applies broadly to police ‘services, programs, or activities.’ We have interpreted these terms to encompass ‘anything a public entity does.’”

If the ADA applies, then the police officers were required to reasonably accommodate Sheehan during the police encounter, provided that the accommodation does not fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program or activity.

Sheehan’s attorneys argue that the officers failed to reasonably accommodate her by not taking her mental illness into account when they reentered the room, and instead should have taken other measures to deescalate the situation. The 9th Circuit, while acknowledging that a jury may still find the officers’ actions were reasonable, found that a question of fact existed as to whether the officers reasonably accommodated her.

In regard to the Fourth Amendment claim, police officers are allowed to conduct warrantless searches in exigent circumstances or to apply emergency aid, both circumstances of which arguably apply here. There is no dispute as to the officers’ authority during the initial encounter.

For the officer’s reentry, however, the 9th Circuit found that a jury may find that the officers acted unreasonably by failing to take Sheehan’s mental illness into account when deciding whether the reenter, as well as whether the officers recklessly provoked the near-fatal confrontation.

Hearings are expected to be held in March, according to SCOTUSblog.