Monday, June 29, 2015

Must the police reasonably accommodate a disability in a use-of-force case?

The Fourth Amendment protects you from police misconduct. But not every misconduct case reaches a jury. The officers can assert qualified immunity, which means they are immune from suit if they acted reasonably under the circumstances. In this case, the Supreme Court grants police officers qualified immunity even though they used force against the plaintiff, a disabled woman with schizoaffective disorder.

The case is City of San Francisco v. Sheehan, decided on May 18. After Sheehan behaved erratically at a group home and claimed to have a knife, the police showed up. Sheehan threatened them, the officers retreated and Sheehan shut the door to her room. The officers then worried that Sheehan might have more weapons in her room and might escape out the window. The officers reentered the room and pepper sprayed Sheehan. That did not subdue Sheehan, so an officer shot her twice, but she did not collapse. So another officer fired multiple shots and someone else kicked the knife from her hand. Although Sheehan was disabled, the officers did not consider whether to give her a reasonable accommodation rather than use force.The Court says the officers acted appropriately under the circumstances; this woman acted erratically and threatened to use a knife. But that does not fully answer the question here: what about any accommodations? 

The Ninth Circuit said the officers could have accommodated plaintiff by "respecting her comfort zone, engaging in non-threatening communications and using the passage of time to defuse the situation rather than precipitating a deadly confrontation." The Supreme Court is not buying it. The Americans with Disabilities Act entitles you to a reasonable accommodation if you have a disability, but remember what I said about qualified immunity. When the police have to act fast, they cannot always ponder the situation even if 20/20 hindsight suggests they should have. And if the law is not clearly established on the factual issues presented to the officers, they cannot be held liable for guessing wrong about what a court will say about it later. Cases in this area are not clear enough to put the officers on notice that they had to consider alternative ways to deal with Sheehan in light of her disability, rather than using force.

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