Sheehan vs San Francisco

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) took the case of Sheehan vs San Francisco.

In 2008, Sheehan, who has schizophrenia, threatened her social worker with a knife, then threatened the two police officers who came after. They called for backup. Before backup arrived, the police broke into her apartment, pepper sprayed her, then shot at her 5 or 6 times. Sheehan survived and was charged with assault, but sued the police department and the city under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that the decision to go in without backup was not reasonable given her disability.

A federal judge threw out the case (he’s the brother of Justice Breyer, who will recuse himself), but the 9th Circuit said it should go to a jury. Now SCOTUS will rule.

Here’s what I wrote for CNN in August about police violence and disability:

In cases like these, we need to stop talking about mental illness and
start thinking through the implications of psychiatric disabilities. We
also need police whose first instinct is to de-escalate tense situations
whenever and however possible, and, when necessary, solve
confrontations with the absolute minimum amount of force.

Psychiatric disability
refers to mental illness that “significantly interferes with the
performance of major life activities,” a category that clearly applies
to people whose “erratic behavior” got them killed by police.
The distinction matters.
In America, being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections.
While we generally try to eradicate illness, we are required to
accommodate disability. So how does a police officer accommodate someone
behaving erratically and holding a knife?

So now SCOTUS is going to rule, more or less, on that question. I am not optimistic, but I am not a SCOTUS expert or a legal scholar or a lawyer. I have no real idea how this question will fit into the general legal opinions of the various justices.

But I am glad the argument is getting its day in court. I’ll hope that at least someone writes a pro-accomodation opinion that I can use, even if it’s a dissent. We need to shift the rhetoric.

I’m going to try and go to DC to hear the arguments in the spring and will report back.

UPDATE: Think Progress has a good summary of the case here.

3 Replies to “Sheehan vs San Francisco”

  1. DH, M.S., says:

    Thank you for this.

    People think violence under color of authority is limited to race. As a parent of, and advocate for mentally disabled and disordered people, they are constantly victimized and demoralized both in and out of institutions, in almost every way, every day and by those charged with their care.

    Our voices are muted for fear they will be retaliated against once they arrive in the criminal "justice" system.

    I am a lawyer with a Master's in Criminal Justice and I am beyond weary (and broke) from this battle.

    I am glad to have found this blog, which I hope to mention on mine, which is a silly little thing compared to this.

    Thanks again.

    DH, M.S.
    Attorney at Law

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