I have a new piece out today at Al Jazeera America on the upcoming Supreme Court case – Sheehan vs San Francisco. I write:
Twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities are regularly dying at the hands of police officers across the country. In just the last few weeks, four such deaths have made national news: Kristiana Coignard in Texas, Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Washington, Lavall Hall in Florida and Charley Robinet in California. According to the American Psychological Association, some officers spend more time “responding to calls involving mental illnesses than they do investigating burglaries or felony assaults.” Too often, these encounters turn violent. Our best guess is that about 50 percent of killings by police involve psychiatric disability of some sort.
On March 23, the Supreme Court will have a chance to address this national crisis. The case of Sheehan v. San Francisco offers the justices the chance to clarify how the ADA applies to law enforcement — an important step that could strengthen the broader movement for police reform. This case will determine to what extent police can be held accountable to the best practices of their profession.
I read hundreds of pages of briefs, talked to lawyers on both sides, consulted an ACLU expert on these issues, and also talked to Seth Stoughton, a police law expert I often rely on. You might also read this argument summary from SCOTUSblog. Here’s my summary:
In August 2008, Teresa Sheehan, a resident of a group home for people with psychiatric disabilities, threatened a social worker with a kitchen knife. The social worker called the police. Two officers arrived and entered Sheehan’s room but retreated when she threatened them as well. They called for backup. Instead of waiting, they re-entered the room. Sheehan came at them with the knife, and they shot her repeatedly. Luckily, she survived. A hung jury resulted in a partial acquittal of assault charges against her.
The lawsuit focuses on the legality of the second entry into Sheehan’s room. She sued the officers under Title II of the ADA, arguing that by not waiting for backup, the officers did not reasonably accommodate her disability. Furthermore, her attorneys argue that the violation of the ADA exempts the officers from qualified immunity, a doctrine intended to protect police from lawsuits unless it’s clearly established that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure. At issue is not whether the police were wrong to enter the room the second time but whether it’s allowable for Sheehan’s lawyers to argue that they were wrong before a civil jury.
I am concerned, honestly, although I tried to set the stakes and make an argument, rather than gnash my teeth and worry in the AJAM piece. The Teresa Sheehan case is so compelling, on the facts, that if she can’t win her right to sue (which is not the same as winning her case), then the line has been drawn so even farther in law enforcement’s favor. The officers knew, absolutely knew, that Sheehan was in mental health crisis, had psychiatric disabilities, was along in her room (it’s a small room), did not have a fire escape out the back (the fire escape was on the front of the building, where any law officer could have seen it entering the building), did not have a firearm, had no hostages, etc. And yet they charged in the second time anyway, and Sheehan got shot. She has the right to sue them and let a jury decide culpability.
Please read and share the original Al Jazeera piece, if you can. We need the country to understand the stakes here.