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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Police-Shooting Case Taken Up by Supremes

(CN) - The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to take up a case where San Francisco police officers shot a disturbed, knife-wielding woman.

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 9th Circuit revived Sheehan's civil-rights and excessive-force allegations in February. The officers 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, court found that the second entry and use of deadly force may have been illegal.

This was salient despite Sheehan's admission 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."

The court also found that "triable issues of fact" remain as to whether the incident warranted deadly force.

Sheehan's claims under the ADA were an issue of first impression for the 9th Circuit, which found that the act does indeed apply to arrests.

The Supreme Court granted San Francisco a writ of certiorari Tuesday without explanation, as is its custom. The order notes only that Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case.

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