Reasonable Accommodations

Do the lives of the mentally ill matter to the Supreme Court?

Justice with empathy: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during a Commonwealth Club event at Herbst Theatre on Jan. 28, 2013, in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the first time since Ferguson ignited a national conversation about police use of deadly force, the Supreme Court considered a major police shooting case—perhaps its most important since Graham v. Connor set a standard for the “reasonableness” of shooting a civilian.

The victim in San Francisco v. Sheehan isn’t black or Latino, but she’s part of a group whose civil rights are just as vulnerable in the context of policing: people living with mental illness. One advocacy group estimates that at least half of all people shot to death by police each year have mental health issues. Outcry surrounding the deaths of Anthony Hill, Lavall Hall, and Jason Harrison—to name only a few—underscores the need for rules and guidance for how police should respond with intervention rather than lethal force.

But you wouldn’t know any of this by simply standing in line outside the court. On Monday a big crowd braved the cold and assembled several hours prior to the day’s arguments, but most people I talked to knew only about the other case the court was considering—a First Amendment challenge to Texas’ denial of a specialty license plate emblazoned with a Confederate flag.

Inside the courtroom, there was a similar disconnect. The near-death of Teresa Sheehan at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department took a backseat to lengthy discussions about procedure, threshold issues, and the propriety of even deciding her case in the first place. The fact that Sheehan involved a real person who was shot five times by police in her own residence seemed to be lost on most of the justices. And maybe that’s just the nature of Supreme Court practice: The higher you go in the appellate chain, the more distant reality appears.

But Sheehan shouldn’t be such a case—not when the country is watching how public institutions respond to episodes of police violence. If there’s a decision that should be parsed and dissected for clues about how the Roberts court really feels about cop shootings, Sheehan is it.

The case could settle the extent to which the Americans With Disabilities Act serves as a check on police officers’ interactions with people with mental illnesses. The law demands local governments to provide “reasonable accommodations” to individuals with disabilities, and courts have interpreted that guarantee to include arrests—that is, police should take into account the people’s disabilities when taking them into custody. But the law isn’t uniform across the board on whether cops should make such accommodations if the arrestee exhibits violent or erratic behavior. Does an outburst by a woman who is suffering from schizoaffective disorder, hasn’t taken her medication, and is found holding a small bread knife in her own home automatically strip her of legal protection?

The justices didn’t dwell much on any of those circumstances, all of which were particular to Sheehan and her disability. Instead, the arguments turned on safety risks—to police officers and the public. The lawyer for San Francisco hadn’t even started arguing when Justice Antonin Scalia quickly interrupted her and framed the legal question in terms of whether the law protects “armed and violent suspects who are disabled.” Describing the question this way dismisses the possibility that such a proposition is even feasible. Scalia’s early pushback set the tone for general skepticism among the justices that federal law makes room for incidents like Sheehan’s.

Complicating Sheehan’s case under the ADA is the Supreme Court’s own jurisprudence on searches and seizures, which is relevant to the officers’ forced entrance into her room and the five rounds they unloaded on her during the confrontation. The justices’ and police advocates’ numerous references to “armed and violent,” “direct threats,” and “public safety”—without a mention of Sheehan’s diagnosis, that she was off her meds, or that the situation could’ve been de-escalated by nonviolent means—will no doubt play a part in calculations of the “reasonableness” of the officers’ conduct. And if an officer’s fears are found to be reasonable, the law will vest him with immunity for his constitutional wrongs, never mind that his victim was mentally ill, in her 50s, overweight, and trapped in her own home with nowhere to go.

For all these bad omens, something Justice Sonia Sotomayor said toward the end of the Sheehan arguments infused some legal realism—and humanity—into the proceeding. She was responding to a ridiculous scenario that portrayed Sheehan as a conniving outlaw ready to ambush the responding police. “Maybe there was a cup of bleach she could throw in the face of the officers,” suggested the lawyer for San Francisco, as if Sheehan were ready to deploy her “cluttered room full of household items” as a form of warfare against the police.

Sotomayor pondered whether the law was designed precisely to prevent these terrible assumptions about people with mental illnesses. That the law’s purpose was to give them a “chance” in the worst-case scenario, much like officers are given the benefit of the doubt in the wake of a civilian shooting.

“Unless we want a society in which the mentally ill are automatically killed,” Sotomayor said, before delving into statistics about the hundreds of mentally ill persons who are killed by police officers each year, contrasted with the far fewer officers who are killed under similar circumstances. “Isn’t the ADA … intended to ensure that police officers try mitigation in these situations before they jump to violence?” she asked.

We’ll know soon enough how the Supreme Court answers that question. With Justice Stephen Breyer recused in the case—his brother Charles ruled in the original case at the trial-court level—there is one fewer justice to fashion a pragmatic rule that takes into account the real-life struggles of people with disabilities. Until then, we can only speculate whether a majority will be willing to acknowledge that, yes, the lives of those battling mental illnesses matter, too.