The Supreme Court reverses the 9th Circuit again. In addition, the justices criticize (and indirectly reverse) three other 9th Circuit previous decisions.
The director of a group home occupied by residents suffering from mental illness summoned officers to assist him in moving resident Sheehan to another facility due to her threats. Upon arrival of police, the director opened the door to her room and the officers entered. Sheehan demanded the officers get out, brandished a knife, threatened to kill them, and closed the door. The officers, concerned that others may be in the room, or Sheehan would hurt herself, or try to flee on the fire escape, decided to enter the room again. Uncertain of their options, the officers pushed open the door and Sheehan repeated her conduct, threatened them wielding a knife, and started toward one of the officers who pepper sprayed her in defense.
The spray proved ineffective and Sheehan approached the officer with knife in hand. The officer fired two shot at her, but Sheehan did not fall. The officer fired again. At that point, other officers arrived and resolved the situation. Sheehan survived.
Sheehan sued the City & County and the officers under American Disabilities Act, 42 U.S. 12101 and under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the former on grounds the officers violated the accommodation of disabilities described by the Act and the latter statute under the Constitutional guise of the Fourth Amendment. The district court dismissed the case; the 9th Circuit reversed.
The City and the officers both asserted qualified immunity, and the 9th Circuit reversed by invoking non compliance with the Fourth Amendment. Here is the language of the Supreme Court in reversing:
Even a cursory glance at the facts of Graham confirms just how different that case is from this one. That case did not involve a dangerous, obviously unstable person making threats, much less was there a weapon involved. There is a world of difference between needlessly withholding sugar from an innocent person who is suffering from an insulin reaction, see Graham, supra, at 388–389, 109 S.Ct. 1865, and responding to the perilous situation Reynolds and Holder confronted. Graham is a nonstarter.
The Supreme Court continued by listing cases the 9th Circuit had decided in its opinion reversing the district court and criticized them all as inapplicable.
Because of jurisdictional questions the Supreme Court did not address the officer’s liability under the ADA. But the remand and Supreme Court opinion clearly address the error of the 9th Circuit in denying quaififed immunity to the officers regardless of statutory language. The 9th Circuit, as the Supreme Court notes, has repeatedly been advised on application of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and the difference in analysis under qualified immunity.
That any court would disallow immunity to the officers when threatened by an unstable mental patient armed with a weapon is incredulous. The Supreme Court thought so too.