Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case on Arrests of the Mentally Ill

By John Lavitt 01/08/15

The Supreme Courts decision will impact the way police handle emergency calls involving people in mental health crises. 


In a major case to be decided in 2015, the Supreme Court will rule on whether or not police officers have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate people with mental illnesses when making arrests. The future decision most likely will impact how police departments respond to an out-of control problem. Across the country, emergency calls involving people in mental-health crises have been rapidly increasing. As a result, there is a belief that specific steps must be developed for police to take before using deadly force.

The issue was brought before the court on account of the case of Teresa Sheehan. A mentally ill woman living in a group home in San Francisco, she was shot by police officers after a social worker reported that she was dangerous and wielding a knife. When police officers arrived, Sheehan threatened to kill them if they entered her room. Upon entering, she raised a knife and police shot her at least five times.

Despite the multiple gunshot wounds, Sheehan survived and became the trailblazer in a cutting edge lawsuit. Her lawyers are arguing that the police violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA’s mandate, people with disabilities must be accommodated in public services. In other words, authorities cannot take action without fully taking into account the mental health condition of the individual being acted against.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Colorado chapter, said a Supreme Court decision in Sheehan’s favor could affirm that police must take into account the mental disabilities of the people they encounter. Silverstein highlighted how such mental disabilities must be a priority in the decision-making process when it comes to the use of force. Silverstein explained his perspective:

“A case like this highlights the situation that police around the country have found themselves in where their actions could lead to an escalation where they wind up having to use deadly force, or where another course of action could lead to a de-escalation that could resolve the situation without the need to resort to deadly force.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.