Residential Entries; The Emergency Aid Doctrine
Use of Deadly Force
The Americans with Disabilities Act
City & County of San Francisco v. Sheehan (May 18, 2015) __ U.S.__ [2015 U.S. LEXIS 3200]
Rule: Law enforcement officers may enter a residence without a warrant to check the welfare of a mentally ill and potentially violent occupant. Whether or not a second warrantless entry may be made without waiting for additional assistance is (and remains) an undecided issue, entitling officers to qualified immunity from civil liability. Once entry is made, however, the use of deadly force against a knife-wielding and threatening occupant is justifiable.
Facts: Teresa Sheehan, a woman in her mid-50’s and suffering from a mental illness (a “schizoaffective disorder”), lived in a San Francisco group home for persons dealing with mental illness. Her social worker, Heath Hodge, became concerned when she quit taking her medications and her condition started to deteriorate. He therefore did a welfare check on her in her room, entering without permission. She flipped out and threatened to kill him with a knife she claimed to have but did not exhibit. Hodge left the room and cleared the building of other residents. Believing Sheehan to be “gravely disabled” and a “danger to others,” Hodge called police for assistance in moving her to a mental health facility for a 72-hour W&I § 5150 involuntary commitment for evaluation. San Francisco Police Sergeant Kimberly Reynolds and Officer Katherine Holder responded to the call. Hodge met the officers outside and explained to them the situation. He also told them that the only way out of her second-floor room was the door to the hallway. A window in her apartment couldn’t be used without a ladder although it was not discussed whether a fire escape led to that window. Although Hodge indicated to the officers that he believed Sheehan was gravely disabled and a danger to others, he did not tell them that she might be suicidal or a danger to herself. The officers decided to enter Sheehan’s room to confirm the social worker’s assessment and to take her into custody. Accompanied by Hodge, they knocked on the door and announced that they were police officers. When she didn’t respond, they used a key to open the door. Once inside, the officers saw Sheehan lying on her bed. Sheehan got up and picked up a large knife with a 5-inch blade from a table, approaching the officers in an aggressive, threatening manner. She demanded that the officers get out while threatening to kill them. She shoved the knife out in front of her with blade pointed towards them, making “jabbing motion(s).” The officers retreated and Sheehan closed the door. The officers called for backup. But rather than waiting for help to arrive, they decided to forcibly reenter Sheehan’s room because with the door closed, it was unknown whether she might try to escape or retrieve other weapons. With their firearms drawn and pepper spray in hand, Officer Holder used her feet and shoulder in an attempt to gain entry. Once they got the door open, Sheehan emerged from the room brandishing her knife while advancing towards the officers. Sgt. Reynolds pepper sprayed Sheehan, but without effect. As Sheehan continued to advance on the officers, getting within two to four feet (“so close that Holder was forced to fire from the hip to prevent Sheehan from cutting her arm”), Officer Holder, and then Sgt. Reynolds, began shooting, hitting Sheehan five or six times. The evidence was in dispute as to whether Sgt. Reynolds may have shot Sheehan one extra time after Sheehan was on the floor. But even though Sheehan fell to the ground, she continued to swing the knife at the officers until a backup officer who had just arrived kicked the knife from her hand. Sheehan survived the shooting, later filing a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil action in federal court against the officers and the city. In her suit, she asserted violations of her rights under the Fourth Amendment as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) (42 U. S. C. §§ 12101 et seq.), alleging that the officers subdued her in a manner that did not reasonably accommodate her disability. The federal trial court judge granted the police officer defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing the lawsuit. Sheehan appealed. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit vacated in part, holding that because the ADA covers public “services, programs, or activities” (§ 12132), the ADA’s accommodation requirement should be read to to encompass “anything a public entity does.” The Ninth Circuit agreed “that exigent circumstances inform the reasonableness analysis under the ADA,” but concluded that it was for a jury to decide whether San Francisco should have accommodated Sheehan by, for instance, “respect[ing] her comfort zone, engag[ing] in non-threatening communications and us[ing] the passage of time to defuse the situation rather than precipitating a deadly confrontation.” As for the officers’ use of force, the panel held that their initial entry into Sheehan’s room was lawful under the so-called “emergency aid doctrine” and that, after the officers opened the door for the second time, they reasonably used their firearms when the pepper spray failed to stop Sheehan’s threatening advance. Nonetheless, the panel also held that a jury could find that the officers “provoked” Sheehan by needlessly forcing that second confrontation. The Ninth Circuit (with one justice dissenting) further found that it was clearly established in the law 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,” and that they were therefore not entitled to qualified immunity. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Held: The United States Supreme Court reversed in part and affirmed in part. As to the question of whether or not, and if so, how the ADA might apply to an arrest-related situation of a mentally ill individual, as well as the related issue of whether a public entity can be held civilly liable for damages under the ADA for an arrest made by its police officers, the Court declined to decide these issues, describing their decision to grant certiorari on this “important question” as “improvidently granted.” In so doing, it was first noted that Title II of the ADA commands that “ no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity .” (42 U.S.C. § 12132) The Court originally granted certiorari under the belief that it was to decide whether this provision “requires law enforcement officers to provide ADA accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody:” I.e., does the ADA apply to the arrest of a violent mental patient? Instead, however, the parties (both sides) assumed that the ADA does in fact apply to arrests, but argued instead to the Supreme Court the separate issue of whether or not a person who poses a direct threat or significant risk to the safety of others is even qualified in the first place to the benefits of the ADA; an issue not raised (or even “hinted at”) at the Ninth Circuit level. Because this argument was not first brought before the lower court, as it should have been, the Supreme Court declined to answer it here. As to the rest of the Ninth Circuit’s decision—i.e., involving the Fourth Amendment’s applicability to the officers’ actions—the Court affirmed the lower court’s two conclusions that both the original entry into Sheehan’s room, and the eventual use of deadly force when Sheehan attacked the officers with a knife, were reasonable. The original entry into Sheehan’s room was necessary in order to check her welfare. “[L]aw enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” As to the second entry, the Court found that had Sheehan not been disabled , the officers would not have been prevented from opening her door the second time “because the two entries were part of a single, continuous search or seizure.” It was not necessary for the officers to have to justify a continuing emergency with respect to the second entry. In addition, Officers Reynolds and Holder knew that Sheehan had a weapon and had threatened to use it to kill three people. They also knew that any delay could have made the situation more dangerous. Police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments. The Fourth Amendment standard is reasonableness, and it is reasonable for police to move quickly if delay would gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others even if the officers make some mistakes in judgment along the way. Then, once inside, when attacked by a knife-wielding suspect, particularly after pepper spray failed to eliminate the danger, the use of deadly force by the officers was reasonable. “Nothing in the Fourth Amendment barred Reynolds and Holder from protecting themselves, even though it meant firing multiple rounds.” The ultimate issue, however, upon which the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, is whether, despite these dangerous circumstances, the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when, knowing that Sheehan suffered from some mental issues , they decided to reopen her door rather than attempting to take it slower and accommodate her disability. Without deciding the actual legality of the second entry under the circumstances of this case— where the occupant was mentally disabled (it, again, not having been properly briefed at the Ninth Circuit level)—the Court merely determined that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in ruling that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on this issue. Noting that the authority cited by the Ninth Circuit does not support the lower court’s conclusion that the issue is well-settled in the law, the Supreme Court found there to be no existing precedent clearly guiding the officers in what they were to do. Officers Reynolds and Holder could not know that reopening Sheehan’s door to prevent her from escaping or gathering more weapons would violate the Ninth Circuit’s test for reasonableness. Without that “fair notice,” an officer is, by law, entitled to qualified immunity. San Francisco apparently trains its officers when dealing with the mentally ill to “ensure that sufficient resources are brought to the scene,” “contain the subject,” “respect the suspect’s ‘comfort zone,” “use time to their advantage,” and “employ non-threatening verbal communication and open-ended questions to facilitate the subject’s participation in communication.” It is also San Francisco’s policy to use a hostage negotiator when dealing with a barricaded suspect. The fact that the officers may have ignored such training in this instance does not mean that they had any reason to understand that the Fourth Amendment might require such actions. To the contrary, “(c)onsidering the specific situation confronting Reynolds and Holder, they had sufficient reason to believe that their conduct was justified.” As such, they were entitled to qualified immunity under these circumstances.
Note: Well, darn : We were all hoping to get some idea whether we must take into account the Americans with Disabilities Act when arresting mentally ill (or other disabled) suspects. I, for one, would have liked to know how the ADA might be applied in such a situation. But because of the Government’s “bait and switch” appellate tactics (as it was referred to by one irate justice) in changing the specific issue mid-appeal, that question will have to await another day. It’s not a good idea to piss off the Supreme Court. Also, although told that the second entry would have been lawful had Sheehan not been mentally disabled, we aren’t told whether the officers actually violated the Fourth Amendment by forcing a second entry into Sheehan’s room rather than taking it slower and awaiting some expert help in dealing with an obviously violent mental patient. I listed San Francisco’s polices for such a situation above because, quite frankly, I tend to agree that that might have been the better route for Officers Reynolds and Holder to take, even if they’d been able to subdue Sheehan without shooting her. But despite declining to decide whether the second entry into Sheehan’s room was actually a Fourth Amendment violation, the Court seemed to hint very strongly that it was not. (“ Considering the specific situation confronting Reynolds and Holder, they had sufficient reason to believe that their conduct was justified. ”) And while I’m of the school of thought that it is sometimes better to take it slow and easy, as dictated by SFPD’s written policies, I also can’t say that, under the heat of the moment, the officers did anything wrong.”
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