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Mentally Ill Shooting May Leave Cops Liable

(CN) - Two San Francisco police officers must face claims that they illegally re-entered a disturbed, knife-wielding woman's room and shot her several times, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.

The 2008 incident began when Teresa Sheehan, a resident of the Conrad House group home who had a history of increasingly acute mental-health problems, threatened a social worker with a knife after he tried to check on her.

Responding to the social worker's request that Sheehan be taken to a mental-health facility, San Francisco police officers Kimberly Reynolds and Katherine Holder entered Sheehan's room without a warrant, faced her knife-wielding wrath, retreated and called for backup. Before other officers arrived at the scene, however, Reynolds and Holder re-entered Sheehan's room with weapons drawn and shot her at least five times after she threatened them again with the knife.

Sheehan, whom the social worker had described as "gravely disabled" and who had reportedly stopped taking her medication, survived the shootings but was indicted for assaulting police officers. Her trial resulted in a hung jury and a partial acquittal, after which she filed a federal civil rights action against the City and County of San Francisco, the officers, and their supervisors.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled for the defendants on all counts, but the federal appeals court on Friday revived Sheehan's civil rights and excessive force allegations against the officers. They must also face claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the ruling.

While it was clearly legal for the officers to enter Sheehan's room without a warrant to check on her, the second entry and use of deadly force may have been illegal - even though Sheehan later admitted that "it was her intent to resist arrest and to use the knife to defend herself against the officers because she did not want to be removed from her home or detained for a 72- hour evaluation," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for a three-judge panel.

"If the officers were acting pursuant to the emergency aid exception, then they were required to carry out the search or seizure in a reasonable manner," Fisher added. "Similarly, if they were acting pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception, they were required to use reasonable force. Under either standard, a jury could find that the officers acted unreasonably by forcing the second entry and provoking a near-fatal confrontation. We therefore cannot say that the second entry was reasonable as a matter of law."

Similarly, "triable issues of fact" remain as to whether the incident warranted deadly force, the ruling states.

"The shooting was lawful when viewed from the moment of the shooting because at that point Sheehan presented an immediate danger to the officers' safety," Fisher wrote. "Under our case law, however, officers may be held liable for an otherwise lawful defensive use of deadly force when they intentionally or recklessly provoke a violent confrontation by actions that rise to the level of an independent Fourth Amendment violation."

In an issue of first impression for the 9th Circuit, the panel also revived Sheehan's claims under the ADA, finding that the act does indeed apply to arrests. On remand, the District Court must decide "whether the officers failed to reasonably accommodate Sheehan's disability when they forced their way back into her room without taking her mental illness into account or employing generally accepted police practices for peaceably resolving a confrontation with a person with mental illness."

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