Monday, February 24, 2014
Panel Revives Suit Against San Francisco Police Over Shooting of Mentally Ill Woman at Group Home
By MICHAEL J. PEIL, Staff Writer
A plaintiff can bring a 42 U.S.C. §1983 claim against a city alleging that police acted unreasonably during a search pursuant to an exception to the warrant requirement, and that the failure to reasonably accommodate her mental illness during the arrest violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the. Ninth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The panel partially reinstated Teresa Sheehan’s claims against the city of San Francisco, Heather Fong in her capacity as chief of police, and police officers, alleging that the police violated her rights by forcefully entering her residence before shooting her.
The divided panel, in an opinion by Senior Judge Raymond C. Fisher, explained that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by initially conducting a warrantless entry under the emergency aid or exigent circumstances exceptions.
The officers acted reasonably when they entered Sheehan’s room to assess whether she needed to be involuntarily committed for mental evaluation after her social worker, Heath Hodge, expressed concerns over her deteriorating mental condition, the judge said.
But, Fisher concluded, issues were raised as to whether the police acted reasonably by forcing a second entry into her residence, without taking account of her mental illness, and provoking a near-fatal confrontation.
“Although Sheehan needed assistance, the officers had no reason to believe that a delay in entering her room would cause her serious harm, especially when weighed against the high likelihood that a deadly confrontation would ensue if they forced a confrontation.”
The ADA, he said, applies broadly to police activities, he said, so Sheehan was permitted to bring her claim to determine whether officers reasonably accommodated her disability by not accounting for her mental illness when deciding to reenter he room.
On Aug. 7, 2008, Hodge attempted to make a welfare check on Sheehan at her private room in the Conrad House, a group home for the mentally ill. He explained that he entered her room without Sheehan’s permission, and that she told him to get out and that she would kill him with a knife.
Hodge called the San Francisco Police Department’s nonemergency number, requesting assistance in transporting Sheehan to a mental health facility for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation under California Welfare & Institutions Code §5150.
Police officers Katherine Holder and Kimberly Reynolds responded to the call that a patient “known to make violent threats, told reporting party to get out or she’ll knife him (no weapon seen).” Hodge told the police, upon their arrival, that Sheehan had been off her medications, and that she had threatened to kill him.
The officers went to Sheehan’s room, announced that they were police officers, and then opened the door with a key. Reynolds said that Sheehan then rose up, grabbed a knife, and walked towards the officers in a threatening manner, saying that she was going to kill them.
Sheehan conceded that she held a knife and threatened the officers.
The police retreated from Sheehan’s room, closing the door, and called for backup. Before backup arrived, however, the officers forcibly reentered Sheehan’s room.
“[A]s soon as that door was closed, the threat became more scary for us and more uncertainty [sic] about what we were dealing with.”
As Holder attempted to regain entry, Reynolds stood behind her with pepper spray and service weapon drawn. Both parties disputed the events that followed.
The police argued that Sheehan emerged from the room brandishing a knife and advanced towards them, so she was pepper sprayed without effect, and upon continuous advancement, both officers fired their weapons, hitting Sheehan five or six times.
Sheehan contested that she came out of the room with the knife “upraised,” and took one step towards the officers when she was pepper sprayed. She said she was blinded, and began screaming, before falling against the wall, when she was shot.
Sheehan was tried for two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and two counts of assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon, but the jury hung, and prosecutors elected to not retry her.
The panel said it could not make a finding of qualified immunity at this stage of the proceedings.
“[T]he officers’ use of deadly force—viewed from the standpoint of the moment of the shooting—was reasonable as a matter of law….[but] we must consider whether the shooting was reasonable when the events leading up to the shooting are taken into account….[and] a reasonable jury could find that the officers acted recklessly in failing to take Sheehan’s mental illness into account and in forcing a deadly confrontation rather than freezing or attempting to de-escalate the situation.”
Senior Judge John T. Noonan concurred in full, while Judge Susan P. Graber argued in dissent that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity regardless of whether there was one continuous search, or two searches.
“In light of the danger posed by Plaintiff, who held a knife and had threatened to kill the officers, the officers reasonably could conclude that entering the apartment in that way would not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on the use of excessive force.”
The panel concluded that San Francisco could not be held liable on Sheehan’s municipal liability claim, which alleged that the city had failed to properly train the police to deal with people suffering from mental illness, because Sheehan conceded that the police department had employed training materials to guide its officers during such matters.
The case is Sheehan v. City and County of San Francisco, 11-16401.
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