Officers entitled to Qualified Immunity on 4th Amendment Claim Regarding Shooting of Mentally Impaired, Violent and Armed Subject-Law Not Clearly Established as to Whether an Officer Must Consider Disability before making 4th Amendment Entry

In City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, the United States Supreme Court reviewed an officer-involved shooting that occurred in San Francisco. [i]

The Court outlined the facts as follows:

In August 2008, Sheehan lived in a group home for people dealing with mental illness. Although she shared common areas of the building with others, she had a pri­vate room. On August 7, Heath Hodge, a social worker who supervised the counseling staff in the building, at­tempted to visit Sheehan to conduct a welfare check. Hodge was concerned because Sheehan had stopped tak­ing her medication, no longer spoke with her psychiatrist, and reportedly was no longer changing her clothes or eating. See 743 F. 3d 1211, 1218 (CA9 2014); App. 23–24.

Hodge knocked on Sheehan’s door but received no an­swer. He then used a key to enter her room and found Sheehan on her bed. Initially, she would not respond to questions. But she then sprang up, reportedly yelling, “Get out of here! You don’t have a warrant! I have a knife, and I’ll kill you if I have to.” Hodge left without seeing whether she actually had a knife, and Sheehan slammed the door shut behind him. See 743 F. 3d, at 1218.

Sheehan, Hodge realized, required “some sort of inter­vention,” App. 96, but he also knew that he would need help. Hodge took steps to clear the building of other peo­ple and completed an application to have Sheehan de­tained for temporary evaluation and treatment. See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code Ann. §5150 (West 2015 Cum. Supp.) (authorizing temporary detention of someone who “as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled”). On that appli­cation, Hodge checked off boxes indicating that Sheehan was a “threat to others” and “gravely disabled,” but he did not mark that she was a danger to herself. 743 F. 3d, at 1218. He telephoned the police and asked for help to take Sheehan to a secure facility.

Officer Holder responded to police dispatch and headed toward the group home. When she arrived, Holder re­viewed the temporary-detention application and spoke with Hodge. Holder then sought assistance from Sergeant Reynolds, a more experienced officer. After Reynolds arrived and was brought up to speed, Hodge spoke with a nurse at the psychiatric emergency services unit at San Francisco General Hospital who said that the hospital would be able to admit Sheehan.

Accompanied by Hodge, the officers went to Sheehan’s room, knocked on her door, announced who they were, and told Sheehan that “we want to help you.” App. 36. When Sheehan did not answer, the officers used Hodge’s key to enter the room. Sheehan reacted violently. She grabbed a kitchen knife with an approximately 5-inch blade and began approaching the officers, yelling something along the lines of “I am going to kill you. I don’t need help. Get out.” Ibid. See also id., at 284 (“[Q.] Did you tell them I’ll kill you if you don’t get out of here? A. Yes”). The offic­ers—who did not have their weapons drawn—“retreated and Sheehan closed the door, leaving Sheehan in her room and the officers and Hodge in the hallway.” 743 F. 3d, at 1219. The officers called for backup and sent Hodge downstairs to let in reinforcements when they arrived.

The officers were concerned that the door to Sheehan’s room was closed. They worried that Sheehan, out of their sight, might gather more weapons—Reynolds had already observed other knives in her room, see App. 228—or even try to flee through the back window, id., at 227. Because Sheehan’s room was on the second floor, she likely would have needed a ladder to escape. Fire escapes, however, are common in San Francisco, and the officers did not know whether Sheehan’s room had such an escape. (Nei­ther officer asked Hodge about a fire escape, but if they had, it seems he “probably” would have said there was one, id., at 117). With the door closed, all that Reynolds and Holder knew for sure was that Sheehan was unstable, she had just threatened to kill three people, and she had a weapon.

Reynolds and Holder had to make a decision. They could wait for backup—indeed, they already heard sirens. Or they could quickly reenter the room and try to subdue Sheehan before more time elapsed. Because Reynolds believed that the situation “required [their] immediate attention,” id., at 235, the officers chose reentry. In mak­ing that decision, they did not pause to consider whether Sheehan’s disability should be accommodated. See 743 F. 3d, at 1219. The officers obviously knew that Sheehan was unwell, but in Reynolds’ words, that was “a secondary issue” given that they were “faced with a violent woman who had already threatened to kill her social worker” and “two uniformed police officers.” App. 235.

The officers ultimately decided that Holder—the larger officer—should push the door open while Reynolds used pepper spray on Sheehan. With pistols drawn, the officers moved in. When Sheehan, knife in hand, saw them, she again yelled for them to leave. She may also have again said that she was going to kill them. Sheehan is “not sure” if she threatened death a second time, id., at 284, but “concedes that it was her intent to resist arrest and to use the knife,” 743 F. 3d, at 1220. In any event, Reynolds began pepper-spraying Sheehan in the face, but Sheehan would not drop the knife. When Sheehan was only a few feet away, Holder shot her twice, but she did not collapse. Reynolds then fired multiple shots.2 After Sheehan finally fell, a third officer (who had just arrived) kicked the knife out of her hand. Sheehan survived.

Sometime later, San Francisco prosecuted Sheehan for assault with a deadly weapon, assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon, and making criminal threats. The jury acquitted Sheehan of making threats but was unable to reach a verdict on the assault counts, and prosecutors decided not to retry her.

Sheehan then brought suit, alleging, among other things, that San Francisco violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 104 Stat. 327, 42 U. S. C. §12101 et seq., by subduing her in a manner that did not reasonably accommodate her disability. She also sued Reynolds and Holder in their personal capacities under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, for violating her Fourth Amendment rights. In support of her claims, she offered testimony from a former deputy police chief, Lou Reiter, who contended that Reynolds and Holder fell short of their training by not using practices designed to mini­mize the risk of violence when dealing with the mentally ill.

Two questions were presented to the United States Supreme Court.

The first question was whether provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. 12132) “requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.”

The Court noted that when they granted the appeal in this case, the Court understood San Francisco’s argument to be that the ADA (Title II) does not apply to an “officer’s on-the-street responses to reported disturbances or other similar incidents, whether or not those calls involve subjects with mental disabilities, prior to the officer’s securing the scene and ensuring that there is not threat to human life.”  In other words, the ADA should not require an accommodation for an armed and violent individual.

The Court noted that while they granted the appeal on this issue, San Francisco decided to rely on a different argument during their appeal and that the United States Court of Appeal for the 9th Circuit was not presented with this alternate argument when they had decided the case.

Before the United States Supreme Court, San Francisco argued that when a disabled individual poses a “direct threat” to others, they are excluded from ADA accommodation protection.  Thus, rather than arguing that the ADA does not apply to an officer’s on-the-street decisions with an armed, violent, mentally impaired subject, San Francisco argued that Sheehan was not entitled to an ADA accommodation because she was a direct threat to others.

The Court concluded that it would not decide the ADA part of this case because the City and County of San Francisco had not made the “direct threat” argument in the lower court and therefore had not given the lower court the opportunity to pass on this argument.

The Court noted that the decision not to decide whether the ADA applies to arrests “is reinforced” by the failure of the parties to address whether or not a governmental entity is vicariously liable for money damages based on the acts of its employees under Title II of the ADA.   The Court pointed out first, that only public entities are liable for damages under Title II and second, that the Court has never decided whether the governmental entity is vicariously liable for the acts of their employees


The second question presented to the Court was whether Officer Reynolds and Officer Holder violated the 4th Amendment through the use of excessive force on Sheehan.

The Court started out by agreeing with the United States Court of Appeal on some points.

First, the Court agreed that the officers did not violate the 4th Amendment when they opened Sheehan’s door the first time.  Citing prior decisions, the Court noted that officer may make a warrantless entry in order to protect someone from an imminent injury or to provide emergency assistance to someone who is injured.

Second, the Court asserted that there is no doubt that if Sheehan was not disabled a second entry would have been subject to ongoing and continuous exigency and therefore would be justified.  The Court also noted that the officers knew Sheehan was armed and threatening to kill people, thus delaying entry may make the situation more dangerous. The Court concluded that it is reasonable for law enforcement to move quickly where delay would “gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others.”

The Court reasoned:

This is true even when, judged with the benefit of hindsight, the officers may have made “some mistakes.” Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 5). The Constitution is not blind to “the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments.” Plumhoffsupra, at ___ (slip op., at 8).

We also agree with the Ninth Circuit that after the officers opened Sheehan’s door the second time, their use of force was reasonable. Reynolds 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.” 743 F. 3d, at 1229. At this point, the use of potentially deadly force was justified. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U. S. 372, 384 (2007). Nothing in the Fourth Amendment barred Reynolds and Holder from protecting themselves, even though it meant firing multiple rounds.

Putting the question in its simplest terms, the majority wrote that the real issue was whether the decision to open the door the second time without attempting to accommodate Sheehan’s disability changed an otherwise valid entry into an unconstitutional entry.

The Court noted that San Francisco failed to argue that the second entry was constitutional and instead argued that even if this second entry was unconstitutional; the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established.

The Court concluded that because the merits argument that the second entry without accommodating the disability was constitutional was not sufficiently argued, the Court would not decide the merits but would only decide whether the law was clearly established as to whether or not an officer would violate the constitution by making this second entry knowing that Sheehan had a disability.

The majority wrote:  “we simply decide whether the officers’ failure to accommodate Sheehan’s illness violated clearly established law.”

The Court found that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.  In doing so, the Court asserted:

Indeed, even if Reynolds and Holder misjudged the situation, Sheehan cannot “establish a Fourth Amend­ment violation based merely on bad tactics that result in a deadly confrontation that could have been avoided.” Id., at 1190. Courts must not judge officers with “the 20/20vision of hindsight.’” Ibid. (quoting Graham, 490 U. S., at 396).

Even if an officer acts contrary to her training, however, (and here, given the generality of that training, it is not at all clear that Reynolds and Holder did so), that does not itself negate qualified immunity where it would otherwise be warranted. Rather, so long as “a reasonable officer could have believed that his conduct was justified,” a plaintiff cannot “avoi[d] summary judgment by simply producing an expert’s report that an officer’s conduct leading up to a deadly confrontation was imprudent, inappropriate, or even reckless.” Billington,  supra, at 1189Cf. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 216, n. 6 (2001) (GINSBURG, J., concurring in judgment) (“‘[I]n close cases, a jury does not automatically get to second-guess these life and death decisions, even though a plaintiff has an expert and a plausible claim that the situation could better have been handled differently’” (quoting Roy v. Inhabitants of Lewiston, 42 F. 3d 691, 695 (CA1 1994))). Considering the specific situation confronting Reynolds and Holder, they had sufficient reason to believe that their conduct was justified.


  1. Court has not decided whether the ADA applies to arrest situations particularly of armed, violent, mentally, impaired subjects
  2. Court has not decided whether the violent, armed, mentally impaired subject is exempted from an ADA accommodation because they pose a “direct threat” to others.
  3. An entry to provide medical assistance or to prevent imminent harm is reasonable under the 4th Amendment.
  4. The law is not clearly established that an officer must try to accommodate a mentally impaired subject when the officer otherwise has justification to make entry.
  5. An officer who violates training may still be entitled to qualified immunity where the law is not clearly established as to the officer’s conduct.

[A plaintiff] “cannot establish a Fourth Amend­ment violation based merely on bad tactics that result in a deadly confrontation that could have been avoided.” Id., at 1190. Courts must not judge officers with “the 20/20vision of hindsight.”


Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.



[i] City and County of San Francisco et al v. Sheehan,   575 U.S. ___; Slip Op. No.-13-1412 (2015).

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