In early December of 2014, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan. The case involves San Francisco police officers who reported to a group home to transport Teresa Sheehan, who was known to be mentally ill, to mental health facility. The situation ended with police firing six shots at Sheehan. She survived and filed a lawsuit arguing that officers had a responsibility under federal law to consider her mental disability. The case is not about police criminal liability; this one is about whether police are obligated to take special precautions in using deadly force, and also in entering an individual’s home without a warrant or permission.
Attorney Michael Avery:
- Teresa Sheehan is a woman in her mid-fifties who was living in a group home in San Francisco, a home for people with mental disabilities.
- Officers came to the house and ended up shooting her five times at point blank range.
- The case raises some issues for the federal courts, in which the lower courts are in disagreement, and the Supreme Court took the case hoping to resolve those disagreements.
- The police came because the social worker had become concerned with Ms. Sheehan, and wanted to send her to a hospital for 72 hours of evaluation and requested the assistance of the police in transporting her to the hospital.
- Ms. Sheehan didn’t want to be taken to the hospital, didn’t want the social worker in her room, did not want the police in her room; she just wanted to be left alone.
- In the course of asserting her right to be left alone, she threatened the police and the social worker with a knife.
- The police then ended up breaking through her door, forcing open her door and when she was standing there with the knife, they tried to pepper spray her. That didn’t seem to have much effect on her and so they shot her five times.
- Miraculously, she survived, but now she’s permanently disabled and disfigured. One of the bullets entered the left side of her temple, shattered her eye socket, and then exited through her mouth causing serious injuries to her jaw.
- Officers encounter people with mental disabilities extremely frequently. In large cities and towns in the United States, it’s estimated 1 out every 15 people that the police interact with has some form of mental illness.
- Officers are trained to try to diffuse the incident, not to threaten the person, to ask open ended questions, to listen to what the person has to say, try to establish some rapport with the person, respect the person’s space and not crowd the person, and at the same allow the incident to go on as long as it has to in order to have a peaceful resolution.
- Several years ago I wrote an article called “Unreasonable Seizures of Unreasonable People” making the point that officers ought to be held to a standard that requires them to follow their own training.
- When I saw this case was in the courts, I volunteered to provide some assistance to the lawyers in connection with the brief they were writing.
- There are two claims in the case. One is a claim under the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which is the part that says government cannot make unreasonable searches of our home or seizures of our person, and the other is a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- In effect they discriminated against her on the basis of her disability by not following their training and not making the accommodations that they were trained to make for a mentally ill person.
- Secondly, the argument is, when they forced open the door to her apartment and entered and used deadly force against her, they were not behaving reasonably and that again is based on the idea that it would have been reasonable to follow their training. Frankly, they just threw their training out the window.
- Oral argument is scheduled for March 23, 2015.
Guest – Civil rights lawyer Michael Avery, professor at Suffolk University Law School and former president of the National Lawyers Guild from 2003 to 2006. He’s also worked with the National Police Accountability Project.
Lawyers You’ll Like: David Kairys
David Kairys began his career at the Philadelphia public defender’s office in the late 1960s. Since then, he’s been a leader in the effort to fight discrimination and protect individual rights; now he’s regarded as one of the nation’s preeminent civil rights attorneys. David is a professor at the University of Temple Law School, where he teaches civil rights and constitutional law. He has written several books, including Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer, which was published last year.
We were one of a number of young firms dedicated to civil rights and representation of progressive groups.
The Camden 28, caught in the act of breaking into a Camden, New Jersey draft board and destroying all of the files. This was a Catholic Left action.
FBI had informant in the group, who the FBI was paying on an hourly rate. The informant supplied the means to make the action happen.
One hundred FBI agents sat around and waited until they destroyed all the files in the office. Many of the 28 were priests. There were more than 300 draft board raids during Vietnam.
Father Michael Doyle said when your government is napalming children, the place you should be is in jail.
Father Doyle and I strategized a way to start talking to the FBI informant Bob Hardy and eventually got an affidavit saying that the FBI manufactured this crime.
I filed the affidavit and it was on the front page of the New York Times.
Guest – David Kairys, Professor of Law, the first James E. Beasley Chair (2001-07), and one of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers. He authored Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer and With Liberty and Justice for Some and co-authored the bestselling progressive critique of the law, The Politics of Law, and has written over 35 articles and book chapters. His columns have appeared in major periodicals, and he has been profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wall Street Journal, and Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine.