WASHINGTON (CN) – San Francisco police officers who shot a disturbed, knife-wielding woman have immunity from her lawsuit, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Police officers Kimberly Reynolds and Katherine Holder had entered the Conrad House, a group home for the mentally ill, in August 2008 after a social worker there called for help in bringing one of the residents, Teresa Sheehan, to a secure facility.
Sheehan had a history of increasingly acute mental-health problems and had allegedly threatened the social worker with a knife when he tried to check on her because she had stopped taking her medication.
When the responding police officers entered Sheehan’s room without a warrant, they found her angry and wielding a knife.
Though they retreated and called for backup, Reynolds and Holder did not wait for other officers to arrive at the scene before re-entering Sheehan’s room with weapons drawn.
They shot Sheehan, whom the social worker had described as “gravely disabled,” at least five times after she threatened them again with the knife.
Sheehan 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, as well as Sheehan’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, last year.
After taking up San Francisco’s appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court partially reversed Monday, saying that Reynolds and Holder have qualified immunity as to the injuries that Sheehan suffered.
The ruling comes from a divided court because Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case, and two other justices said the court should have dismissed San Francisco’s entire petition as improvidently granted.
Justice Elena Kagan joined in the dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia, which says that San Francisco’s briefing deprived the court of the “opportunity to consider, and settle, a controverted question of law that has divided the circuits.”
The majority elected to dismiss only San Francisco’s appeal of Sheehan’s ADA claims as improvidently granted, but Scalia said the second question stank too.
“I would not reward such bait-and-switch tactics by proceeding to decide the independently ‘uncertworthy’ second question,” Scalia wrote. “And make no mistake about it: Today’s judgment is a reward. It gives the individual petitioners all that they seek, and spares San Francisco the significant expense of defending the suit, and satisfying any judgment, against the individual petitioners. I would not encourage future litigants to seek review premised on arguments they never plan to press, secure in the knowledge that once they find a toehold on this court’s docket, we will consider whatever workaday arguments they choose to present in their merits briefs. There is no injustice in my vote to dismiss both questions as improvidently granted. To be sure, ex post – after the court has improvidently decided the uncertworthy question – it appears that refusal to reverse the judgment below would have left a wrong unrighted. Ex ante, however – before we considered and deliberated upon the second QP but after petitioners’ principal brief made clear that they would not address the circuit conflict presented by the first QP – we had no more assurance that this question was decided incorrectly than we do for the thousands of other uncertworthy questions we refuse to hear each term. Many of them have undoubtedly been decided wrongly, but we are not, and for well over a century have not been, a court of error correction. The fair course – the just course – is to treat this now-nakedly uncertworthy question the way we treat all others: by declining to decide it. In fact, there is in this case an even greater reason to decline: to avoid being snookered, and to deter future snookering.”
The majority’s reversal begins with the finding “that the officers did not violate any federal right when they opened Sheehan’s door the first time.”
“Reynolds and Holder knocked on the door, announced that they were police officers, and informed Sheehan that they wanted to help her,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. “When Sheehan did not come to the door, they entered her room. This was not unconstitutional.”
Had Sheehan not been disabled, the ruling continues, “the officers could have opened her door the second time without violating any constitutional rights.”
In finding that the officers’ use of force was reasonable as well, the court noted that Reynolds had first tried to subdue Sheehan with pepper spray, “but Sheehan kept coming at the officers until she was ‘only a few feet from a cornered Officer Holder.'”
“Nothing in the Fourth Amendment barred Reynolds and Holder from protecting themselves, even though it meant firing multiple rounds,” Alito wrote.
At issue is whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by reopening Sheehan’s door the second time, “rather than attempting to accommodate her disability,” according to the ruling.
Alito said this question has not been adequately briefed and so the court simply decided “whether the officers’ failure to accommodate Sheehan’s illness violated clearly established law.”
“It did not,” he said.
Alito added that, “no matter how carefully a reasonable officer read [precedent] beforehand, that officer could not know that reopening Sheehan’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.”
“Without that ‘fair notice,’ an officer is entitled to qualified immunity,” the decision continues.
The nixed ADA issue that San Francisco slipped in after winning certiorari was “predicated on the proposition that the ADA governs the manner in which a qualified individual with a disability is arrested,” Alito noted.
“Whether the statutory language quoted above applies to arrests is an important question that would benefit from briefing and an adversary presentation,” Alito wrote. “But San Francisco, the United States as amicus curiae, and Sheehan all argue (or at least accept) that §12132 applies to arrests. No one argues the contrary view. As a result, we do not think that it would be prudent to decide the question in this case.”
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