The Supreme Court will be hearing arguments considering whether the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires police to take special precautions when trying to arrest armed and violent suspects who are mentally ill.
The case has been brought to the Supreme Court after a dispute over how San Francisco police offers handled a situation where a schizophrenic woman, Teresa Sheehan, had threatened to kill her social worker. The social worker called the police for help in restraining Sheehan so she could be taken to a hospital for treatment. Officers entered Sheehan's room with a key. Sheehan threatened the officers with a kinfe and the officers called for backup and closed the door. The officers attempted to subdue her with pepper spray, but Sheehan continued to come towards the officers with a knife. The officers then shot Sheehan five times. She survived the shooting.
After the incident, Sheehan later sued the city. She alleged that the police officers had a duty under the Americans With Disabilities Act to consider her mental illness and take additional precautions to avoid a violent confrontation. Attorneys for Sheehan maintain that laws protecting the disabled require the police to make reasonable accommodations when arresting people who have mental or physical disabilities. In this case, police could have used less agressive tactics prior to alleviate the conflict.
However, the City argues that the ADA does not require accommodations for armed and dangerous people who are mentally ill and pose a threat to others.
A federal district court ruled that it would be unreasonable to ask officers trying to detain a violent, mentally disabled person to comply with the ADA before protecting themselves and others. In an appellate decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it is an issue for the jury to decide as to whether it was reasonable for the officers to use less confrontational tactics.
The case has received attention from both mental health advocates and law enforcement groups alike. Mental health advocates argue that unnecessary shootings are often the product of the law enforcement's failure to take into account a suspect's disability. On the other hand, law enforcement groups say that police officers and bystanders are put at risk by ruling in Sheehan's favor.
The ADA generally requires public officials to make "reasonable accommodations" to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities. But lower courts have split on how the law should apply to police conduct when public safety is at risk.