San Francisco v. Sheehan

Posted: May 31, 2015 by beguide in case summaries
Tags: , , ,


WHAT HAPPENED: Sheehan was living at group home for mental disabilities, and the police were called in response to Sheehan’s disruptive behavior. After attempting to subdue Sheehan, the police used their weapons and shot Sheehan. Sheehan subsequently sued for the police’s excessive use of force, specifically in lieu of her disability.

WHY IS THIS BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT: While police have a lot of leeway to use force, the police’s ability to use force when dealing with citizens with mental disabilities is generally unclear. In this instance, Sheehan argued, among many things, that the Police violated both Constitutional rights and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by using force against Sheehan in the manner that they did. The Court presumably chose this case to determine what rights persons with mental disabilities have with police, and more notably, what actions police must take when knowingly dealing with a person with mental illness. The lower court held that the police were not entitled to immunity that is commonly granted to government officials and that the case should go to a jury to decide the merits of Sheehan’s claim.

WHAT WAS THE RULING: The Court ruled 6-2 in favor of favor of San Francisco police and reversed the decision of the lower court.   Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion which stated that the officers were entitled to immunity as there was no established Constitutional right that was violated during the incident in question. The standard for qualified immunity required that the Court find that the police violated an existing Constitutional right, and since no such right existed at the time the incident took place, the police were entitled to immunity.

WHO CARES ABOUT THIS THEN? The interesting nuance of this decision is found in Scalia’s dissent, in which Scalia chided the parties for punting on the broader issues of mental disability, the ADA and the Fourth Amendment. It is speculated that due to external pressure from advocacy groups, both sides dropped their argument regarding mental health disability so that this Court, who is notorious for dismantling Federal Statutes intended to eliminate discrimination, would not issue a ruling that was contrary to existing rights under the ADA. As you would imagine, Scalia was not happy with this.

WHAT ARE THE RAMIFICATIONS OF THIS DECISION: Nothing, aside from the whimsical considerations of what might have been.

THE GOOD GUYS WON IF YOU: enjoy tempting fate, but also maintaining the status quo.

THE BAD GUYS WON IF YOU: like radical decisions that strip people of federal rights. In other words, it’s hard to find a rooting interest in this one.

WHO WAS RIGHT: This case was decided prior to the podcast, which lead to a lively discussion about Marbury v. Madison, standing, and other things cool kids talk about on a Thursday afternoon.

  1. […] scope of the Supreme Court’s Power by way of a weird behind-the-scenes nuance of the San Francisco v. Sheehan case on police force.  Much like any powerful individuals with unfettered power, the Supreme Court […]


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