San Francisco v. Sheehan: New Supreme Court Qualified Immunity Decision Dealing with Shooting the Mentally Disturbed (ADA Issue Not Reached)
In its 2014 Term, the Supreme Court handed down a qualified immunity decision dealing with the shooting of a mentally disturbed woman. As has become the norm in recent qualified immunity cases before the Court, the police officers prevailed.
San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 1765 (2015), involved the near-fatal shooting of a mentally disturbed woman in a group home in August 2008. When the officers initially entered her room, she grabbed a kitchen knife and told them to leave, which they did. After conferring, they then re-entered her room by forcing open the door and blinding her with pepper spray. However, she continued to resist with her knife, so they shot her repeatedly.
Although the Supreme Court had granted certiorari to decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act required the officers to “accommodate” the plaintiff’s disability, the Court did not address that question because it was not properly raised by San Francisco. Instead, reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Court ruled that the officers were protected by qualified immunity from § 1983 Fourth Amendment liability because there was no clearly established law prohibiting this conduct.
The Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s contrary qualified immunity holding that its precedents would have placed “any reasonable, competent officer on notice that it is unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill suspect who had been acting irrationally and had threatened anyone who entered when there was no objective need for immediate entry.”
But even assuming that was true, the Court continued, no precedent clearly established that there was not “an objective need for immediate entry” here. “[A]n officer could not know that reopening [plaintiff’s] door to prevent her from escaping or gathering more weapons would violate the Ninth Circuit’s test, even if all the disputed facts are viewed in respondent’s favor.”
The Supreme Court did not defer to the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of its own Fourth Amendment precedents as to the general rule in such cases.
Similarly, the Court did not defer to the Ninth Circuit’s application of its “objective need for immediate entry” criterion.
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