Vol. 30 No. 6 Must Law Enforcement “Reasonably Accommodate” Violent, Mentally Ill, Suspects When Taking Them Into Custody?


On March 23, 2015, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case ofSan Francisco v. Sheehan, involving the interaction between police and a mentally ill person.

The issue presented focused on whether or not law enforcement, when confronting someone they know is mentally ill, must comport with the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and “reasonably accommodate” that person before resorting to the use of force?

Reasonable accommodations could be, for example, communicating with the person for an extended period of time; containing the scene and calling for specialized assistance; or allowing time to pass so the situation calms down.

Law enforcement’s concerns include, should the Supreme Court decision favor Sheehan’s claims, that it would work to hinder proven police tactics, place officers and possible innocent bystanders at risk, and open police departments to even more vicarious liability lawsuits.


The case involves Teresa Sheehan who was a resident of a group home in San Francisco and suffered from mental illness, schizophrenia, including delusions and hallucinations.  The police had been called by her social worker after Ms. Sheehan had threatened to stab the social worker, and locked herself in her room.  Her counselor had determined that she needed to be taken into custody for involuntary psychiatric evaluation and treatment.  The police had been briefed on the situation and were aware of her mental problems.

The police entered her room and attempted to communicate with her when she threatened them with the knife.  They retreated out of the room but then went back, in an effort to take her into custody.  They used pepper spray and when that failed they tried to physically control her when she, again, threatened and approached them with the knife.  At that time, they fired their weapons and hit her five times.  She survived and ultimately sued for violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as for violation of the ADA.

At trial, the district court held that the ADA did not apply to situations where an officer tries to arrest an armed and violent individual and dismissed her law suit. However, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case for trial.

“We hold that, on the facts presented here, there is a triable issue whether the officers failed to reasonably accommodate Ms. Sheehan’s disability when they forced their way back into her room without taking her mental illness into account or employed generally accepted police practices for peaceably resolving a confrontation with a person with mental illness.”  The City petitioned for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted the case.

U. S. Supreme Court Hearing

During oral argument, it appeared that most justices did not think the ADA would apply in circumstances where the individual was armed and dangerous. However, from questions and comments by the justices it also appeared that they might be inclined to order the matter back to the district court for trial.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the San Francisco case should be dismissed, and returned for trial, because the San Francisco city attorney had acknowledged that the police are bound by the ADA under certain circumstances.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that even though the officers thought Sheehan was a danger to herself or others, going back into the room the second time wasn’t justified.  She said the officers “could have waited and tried to talk her out.”  She also noted that the ADA was “intended to ensure that police officers try mitigation in these situations before they jump to violence.”

However, Justice Elena Kagan stated that when officers are facing someone who is armed and “may be violent at any time,” there is “some reason to give the police officers who have to deal with them the benefit of the doubt.”

Sheehan’s attorney argued that the case involved a “factual dispute” and, therefore, should be decided by a jury, to which Justice Scalia responded, “Exactly, I don’t know why we took this case.”


Obviously, until the Supreme Court issues a ruling on this matter, which should occur before the end of June, there is no direct impact on law enforcement agencies.  However, it behooves all to recognize that the courts are looking, more frequently, at how law enforcement handles situations which result in the use of deadly force.

As an example, on August 19, 2013, the California Supreme Court held, in the case of  Hayes v. County of San Diego, 57 Cal. 4th 662, that liability for negligence may arise from tactical conduct and decisions employed by law enforcement officers preceding the use of deadly force, when viewed as part of the totality of circumstances.

That case also involved a person who suffered from mental illness and the officers had been told that he had threatened to commit suicide.

The Court noted that Hayes reiterated what has been California law for over forty (40) years. “Law enforcement personnel’s tactical conduct and decisions preceding the use of deadly force are relevant considerations under California law in determining whether the use of deadly force gives rise to negligence liability. Such liability can arise, for example, if the tactical conduct and decisions show, as part of the totality of circumstances, that the use of deadly force was unreasonable.” (Emphasis added.)

Hayes did not significantly changed the law of California since it has, for years, imposed a duty on law enforcement to “act reasonably when using deadly force.” The analysis of whether it was reasonable will focus on both the pre-shooting conduct of officers, as well as the moment when deadly force is used.

In the Sheehan case, however, the analysis will go beyond issues of negligence and focus on whether or not there is a duty, under the ADA, to take steps before using deadly force, which appear to be necessitated due to the subject’s mental illness.

In light of the focus of the courts, it might be appropriate for law enforcement to “get ahead of the curve” and provide additional training to officers regarding the handling of situations such as these.

It is important to note, however, that these accommodations, assuming the Court rules that such must be applied, would be required when time allows for them.  In a situation which requires immediate action, and delay is not possible, then the officers’ actions must be appropriate in response to the threat forthcoming.  That has always been the law.

It is most important for agencies to confer with their legal advisors when interpreting and applying the law.  However, and as always, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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