Police Abuse

SCOTUS Grants Qualified Immunity to San Francisco Cops Who Shot Mentally Ill Suspect

4th Amendment challenge rejected in San Francisco v. Sheehan.


In August 2008 a pair of San Francisco police officers responded to a call from a group home for people dealing with mental illnesses. Teresa Sheehan, a resident of that home, was acting erratically and threatening the staff with a kitchen knife. She had locked herself inside her room and refused to come out. When the officers arrived, Sheehan threatened them as well. She remained locked inside her room.

At that point the officers decided to force entry and subdue Sheehan with pepper spray. Using a key, they entered the room and one officer sprayed her in the face. Because Sheehan failed to drop the knife and was now standing several feet away, the officers shot her multiple times.

Sheehan survived this encounter with the police and filed suit, charging San Francisco with failing to accommodate her mental illness, as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, and charging the officers with violating her Fourth Amendment rights.

Public Domain

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police. "An entry that otherwise complies with the Fourth Amendment is not rendered unreasonable because it provokes a violent reaction," declared the majority opinion of Justice Samuel Alito. "We conclude they are entitled to qualified immunity."

According to Alito, the officers "knew that Sheehan had a weapon and had threatened to use it to kill three people. They also knew that delay could make the situation more dangerous. The Fourth Amendment standard is reasonableness, and it is reasonable for police to move quickly if delay 'would gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others.'"

Notably, the Court opted not to decide whether the arrest ran afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act on the grounds that San Francisco tried to switch gears at the last minute by presenting new legal arguments to the Supreme Court that were not part of its original appeal. "Having persuaded us to grant certiorari, San Francisco chose to rely on a different argument than what it pressed below," Alito observed. "As a result, we do not think that it would be prudent to decide the question in this case."

Writing separately, Justice Antonin Scala lambasted San Francisco for its "bait-and-switch tactics." The Court should have dismissed the entire case as improvidently granted, not just the ADA portion, Scalia said, in order "to avoid being snookered, and to deter future snookering."

The Supreme Court's opinion in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan is available here.

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  1. Just goes to show that the Supreme Court embodies the ideal of regular, farmer-statesmen who share the values of ordinary folks like us.

  2. I don’t know where I come down on this. If a retard were in my house with a knife and threatened to kill me and wouldn’t drop the knife, I’d have shot him/her. I’m not familiar with the specifics of the case, so can’t really say much about that. Whether or not s/he’s retarded has very little to do with the situation; and, even if you’re retarded, you’re still responsible for your fucking actions.

    1. Look, I watch Paw Patrol every morning with my son. All the nursing home had to do is summon Ryder who would send in Chase so he could shoot his net over the retard and disable him and his weapon. Common sense people.

      1. yeah… On my property? Hah. Ok buddy let me get right on that. After I shoot you.

        1. ? The mentally ill woman was confined in a room in a healthcare facility. The cops used lethal force by shooting her when they surely could have used other means — bean bag gun, taser, Paw patrol net, water hose, negotiation, funny jokes, etc.

          1. Just exactly how many weapons do you believe police should carry?

            I already said I wasn’t familiar with the specifics of *this* case, such as the person already being confined. I’m just saying that if I open the door, and she charges me with a knife, I shoot.

            1. This is a ridiculous response. Police clearly don’t carry all of the non-lethal options listed above under normal circumstances. However, this was clearly anything but a normal circumstance. They received a call specifying all of the information necessary to support such a decision and then went out to deal with it. With that sort of information, they clearly could have easily gone with additional non-lethal options before responding. The fact that they initially used pepper spray in an attempt to subdue proves that to be true. This was not a heat of the moment situation.

    2. Agreed. If somebody came at me with a knife, they’d be dead.

      However, I’m not collecting hero pay and hero retirement benefits. Keep in mind that this was a lady retard, and she was confined to her room, for which they had a key. Any way you look at it, shooting her counts as a failure for the SFPD.

      1. Like I said, I’m not familiar with the specifics of this case, but I can definitely envision a scenario that’s plausible.

        Not trying to make a dunphy argument here, just saying if I were a cop and she came at me with a knife, I’d have shot before I maced.

        1. It doesn’t say she came at them. She failed to obey. That’s why they killed her. Failure to obey.

          1. And that’s obviously not a situation that I would support the cops’ actions.

            1. That’s why they were granted immunity. They were not being threatened (other than the fact that they consider anyone who fails to immediately obey to be a threat) in a manner that would justify homicide by anyone else. If you shot a retard for failing to drop a knife on command, you would be charged with murder. Only if they were attacking you would your use of deadly force be justified.

              1. Because of the wonder qualified immunity doctrine, the court just looks at whether they violated the fourth amendment when they opened the door. They said they didn’t, so no clearly established right was violated, therefore qualified immunity for everything that follows. Isn’t making up your own rules grand?

              2. If you shot a retard who was in your home and had tried to kill people there for failing to drop a knife on command, you would not be charged with murder.

                Fixed that for you.

                There was more to it than just ‘holding a knife’. Cops don’t usually get called when someone’s just holding a knife–they might be slicing bread, or carving a Thanksgiving turkey. There’s got to be a bit more for cops to be called.

                Something like threatening to kill people.

      2. Worst case she cuts herself. Can’t have that, so they shoot her instead.

        1. They want the kill stats for themselves.

          1. “How can you should women and children?”

            “It’s easy! You just don’t lead ’em so much!”

    3. Once she locked herself alone in her room, she no longer presented an immediate threat, no? The police could have stayed on the other side of the door and used force only if she attempted to come out armed.

      Wait, what am I saying? Of course they had to forcibly enter the room, escalate a clearly mentally deranged person, and shoot her.

      1. Cops can’t be expected to use patience, that’s completely unreasonable.

        1. It’s not their job to be patient. Their job is to force compliance. And when someone refuses to obey, their job is to kill them.

          1. Grandmaster Flash-Bang and the Immune Five hitting you hard with The Message.

          2. Patience requires overtime. You want the city to go broke?

      2. this was my thought exactly. Why couldn’t they wait until she was collapsed from exhaustion? Put a couple of guys outside the door in shifts, If she comes running out with the knife, they could shoot but otherwise wait her out. Or pump the room full of laughing gas before going in.

    4. Yes, but if she sued you, she’d get to have a trial with a jury to decide if you acted reasonably. She may lose or she may win, but a jury would decide it based on all of the evidence presented at a trial. Here, solely because of the made-up doctrine of qualified immunity, a judge (i.e. another government employee) decides whether the actions violated a “clearly established right” based on, at most, some depositions and other documentary evidence. If they didn’t, then no trial and no decision on the reasonableness of their actions.

      1. What makes you think it would take her filing a lawsuit? Under these circumstances, I can guarantee you’d be brought up on criminal charges long before anything moved forward in the civil domain.

  3. …on the grounds that San Francisco tried to switch gears at the last minute by presenting new legal arguments to the Supreme Court that were not part of its original appeal.

    So San Fran wasn’t actually punished for this at all? Or maybe the court would have granted them unqualified immunity if not for the slight.

    1. Qualified immunity is for the officers as individuals. It doesn’t apply to the city/PD.

  4. Whether or not the shooting is justified, it seems the entry into the room was.

    1. And it’s a little sad that isn’t the story out of this.

  5. My buddy’s mother makes $75 every hour on the laptop . She has been laid off for seven months but last month her pay check was $18875 just working on the laptop for a few hours.
    Look At This. ???? http://www.jobsfish.com

  6. “According to Alito, the officers “knew that Sheehan had a weapon and had threatened to use it to kill three people. They also knew that delay could make the situation more dangerous.”

    She’s locked in a room. Alone. What’s the worst she could have done? Cut herself? Shooting her full of holes with Glocks is preferred to the possibility of her simply cutting herself?

    Our leaders could not possibly be more out of touch with reality than ours are now. When your entire worlds consists of living in a pseudo-intellectual government vacuum of sycophants and gald handers, I guess that’s what you get.

    1. I agree. It says she threatened people in the kitchen, not actually attacked anyone. Then she retreats to her room and locks herself in. That seems to me to be a de-escalation — self-imposed. Even mentally ill people are subject to the fight or flight response. The adrenalin dissipates after a while. You just can’t stay in rage mode forever. She would have had to come out of her room at some point, and would have calmed down by then. Why enter and shoot her? Did she have hostages in there? Just another case of cops being above the law. But at least they got home safe.

  7. The cops probably locked eyes with her. Bad move.

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