SCOTUS Case Examines Mental Health Considerations During Arrests
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the Americans with Disabilities Act requires police to take special precautions when arresting potentially violent individuals with mental health issues following an incident in San Francisco, the AP/Sacramento Bee reports.
In 2008,Teresa Sheehan, who has schizophrenia, threatened to kill her social worker and approached police officers with a knife after the social worker called for help.
After attempting to subdue Sheehan with pepper spray, police shot her when she continued to approach them with a knife.
Sheehan survived and eventually sued the city, arguing that the ADA required law enforcement to consider her mental health issues and take steps to avoid violent confrontation.
A federal court ruled that it would be unreasonable to require police officers to comply with the ADA before protecting themselves and others.
Details of SCOTUS Arguments
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about the case.
Deputy City Attorney Christine Van Aken said that San Francisco agrees that under the ADA, law enforcement officials must make "reasonable accommodations" to avoid discriminating against individuals with disabilities. However, she argued that such a requirement does not apply "if the individual presents a significant threat."
According to the AP/Bee, Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to agree with the city, but he questioned whether the high court should have taken up the case, noting that the city seemed to change its arguments after the court agreed to hear the case.
Leonard Feldman, Sheehan's lawyer, said he would welcome a decision to send the case back to the lower courts. In the lower court, a jury would decide whether police should have been less aggressive, Feldman said, noting that "[t]he entire risk that officers confronted was avoidable."
Meanwhile, Deputy Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn said that police should only change tactics if an individual with mental health issues who is armed and violent is "contained and visible."
However, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "I think the standard you've just proposed gives no guidance at all to an officer faced with a violent person."
Case Draws Attention of Mental Health Advocates
According to the AP/Bee, the Supreme Court case has drawn attention from mental health advocates.
Advocates argue that when police officers fail to take into account an individual's mental health issues, it can result in unnecessary shootings.
However, law enforcement groups say a decision in favor of Sheehan could undermine tactics, open police up to further liability and place bystanders at risk (Hananel, AP/Sacramento Bee, 3/23).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.