WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that two San Francisco police officers cannot be sued over their use of force when arresting a knife-wielding woman with a history of mental illness in a confrontation in which she was shot multiple times.
The court, in a 6-2 decision with Justice Stephen Breyer recusing himself, concluded the officers did not violate clearly established law during the 2008 incident involving Teresa Sheehan at the group home for people with mental health issues where she lived.
Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Samuel Alito said nothing the officers did violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures.
Sheehan was shot and pepper sprayed by the officers after they struggled to restrain her when she approached them with a knife. She later filed a lawsuit against them.
The high court did not decide a second question in the case on whether the officers were required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate Sheehan’s mental disability. That issue could still go to trial.
The two dissenting justices, Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan, would have dismissed the case altogether.
Police were called to the group home by Sheehan’s social worker after Sheehan threatened to kill him. The officers were seeking to detain her so she could undergo a psychological evaluation.
Sheehan objected when the officers entered her room without a warrant. She grabbed a knife and threatened to kill them, according to court documents.
Alito noted that the officers knocked on Sheehan’s door and announced that they wanted to help. Their decision to enter the room when she did not respond was not unlawful, Alito said. They also had a right to use force when she approached them with the knife, Alito added.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the brother of Justice Breyer, dismissed the lawsuit in 2011. But the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the case in a February 2014 ruling, prompting the police officers to appeal.
The case is San Francisco v. Sheehan, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1412.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham