BB&K Police Bulletin: Arresting Armed, Mentally Ill Suspects

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

Officers May Have Immunity from Liability, Supreme Court Says

Overview: The United States Supreme Court found that two police officers were immune from liability under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 even if the officers failed to accommodate the disability of a mentally ill person who was acting dangerously and uncooperatively. However, the Court did not address whether law enforcement officers are required, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to provide accommodations to armed, violent and mentally ill suspects in the course of arrest.

Training Points: By upholding qualified immunity in such situations, this ruling provides a measure of security to police officers, who may be forced to act decisively when confronted with armed and dangerous individuals who suffer from mental disabilities. It should be noted, however, that this holding is limited to specific facts involving confrontations with mentally ill persons who are acting violently and dangerously. Other factual scenarios where officers’ duties are clearly established may still result in personal liability. Officers should follow their departmental policies and procedures on use of force and should continue to consider the totality of the circumstances when faced with an armed and dangerous individual.

The extent to which the ADA applies in these circumstances remains an open question. From a practical standpoint, this case likely will not affect the procedures and training that departments utilize to prepare for these situations.

Summary Analysis: In City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, a woman who lived in a group home for mentally disabled persons was arrested after she threatened her social worker with a knife and barricaded herself in her room. When two police officers arrived and entered her room, she threatened the officers with the knife. The officers, concerned that she would flee or injure herself, forcibly reentered the room, sprayed Sheehan with pepper spray and, when she continued to approach them with a knife, shot her several times.

Sheehan sought damages for her injuries against the two officers under section 1983 based on allegations the officers violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her mental disability.  Under section 1983, police officers are immune from suit unless they violate a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the officers could have provided an accommodation by “respect[ing] [Sheehan’s] 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.”  The Supreme Court reversed, holding that officers’ duties in such situations are not clearly established — competent officers could have believed that reentry into the room was justified under the circumstances.

The Supreme Court did not address the underlying issue – whether the ADA requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent and mentally ill suspect in the course of taking a suspect into custody. Though the Court had planned to determine this issue – where there is a split in authority among several Circuit Courts – the City did not brief the matter, and the Court therefore dismissed it without addressing the merits.

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