Supreme Court rules in SFPD's favor in shooting of mentally ill woman

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Two San Francisco police officers are immune from liability for entering a mentally ill woman's room in a group home in 2008 and shooting her five times, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

How police should respond to calls involving people with mental illness and whether police are constitutionally required to treat the mentally ill differently were just two of the questions that came before the court in the case.

The Supreme Court didn't clearly answer either of those questions in its 6-2 decision.

Justice Breyer recused himself from the case, because his brother had been a judge in a lower court ruling. The only clear-cut answer the high court gave was that the two San Francisco police officers involved in the shooting cannot be sued for what happened.

The case was called San Francisco v. Sheehan. On August 7, 2008, social workers called police to Teresa Sheehan's group home, concerned for her well-being, after the schizophrenic woman in her 50s had stopped taking her medication and had locked herself in her room.

Two San Francisco police officers tried to enter her room. On the second try, they broke down the door and said Sheehan became violent in response, threatening the officers with a knife. The officer said they tried to use pepper spray to subdue Sheehan, which did not work, so police shot Sheehan multiple times.

She survived and sued the City of San Francisco and the two police officers involved.

"They forced a confrontation, and ultimately resulted in her being severely injured," said Sheehan's attorney, John Burris.

Burris and Sheehan's other attorneys argued her rights as a disabled American were violated.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires government entities to make "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities. Sheehan's attorneys argued that mandate includes people with mental illness when confronted and arrested by police.

John Burris said officers should have taken steps to de-escalate the situation, knowing Sheehan was schizophrenic.

"They've been trained to handle this kind of situation. Bring in other support people, bring in other negotiators," he said.

"In this case, the danger to the officers was great, and they had very little time to act, so they acted reasonably," said Christine Van Aken, chief of appellate litigation for the City of San Francisco.

The Supreme Court left several questions about the case unanswered.

"We have no answer whether the ADA covers armed and dangerous individuals, we have no answer whether an arrest is an "activity" covered by the ADA," said UC Hastings Criminal Justice Professor Hadar Aviram told KTVU, analyzing the possible, broader implications of the decision.

In short, the question of what the officers should have done went unanswered. The Supreme Court's decision said only that the officers could not be sued in this case.

"We're disappointed they didn't answer that question, but we're gratified they ruled in favor of the officers on the issue of 4th amendment liability," Van Aken said.

Burris said the lack of a definitive answer from the high court means Sheehan's suit will go back to Federal District court. Even though she can't sue the officers, Burris said Sheehan will go ahead with her suit against the City of San Francisco for damages. Sheehan's attorney, Ben Nisenbaum, said that jury trial could happen as early as this fall.