The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police are immune from a lawsuit arising from the arrest and shooting of a mentally ill woman in San Francisco.
But the justices left undecided the question of whether police must take special precautions when arresting armed and violent people suffering from mental illness.
The case involved a 2008 incident in which two police officers forced their way into Teresa Sheehan's room at a group home and shot her five times after she came at them with a knife. Sheehan claimed the officers should have used less confrontational tactics because they are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law requires "reasonable accommodations'' for people with mental illnesses.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the justices wouldn't take up the disability rights issue because it hadn't been fully considered by lower courts.
Qualified immunity protects public officials from being sued for damages unless the official violated a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the misconduct.
Six justices agreed that the police officers could not be sued in this case. Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan wrote separately to say they would have dismissed the case entirely. Justice Stephen Breyer took no part in the case, as his brother was the federal judge who heard the case.
The case had attracted attention from mental health advocates who said that failing to take account of a suspect's disability often results in unnecessary shootings by police.
Law enforcement groups also weighed in, saying a ruling in Sheehan's favor could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk and open them to additional liability.
The ADA generally requires public officials to make "reasonable accommodations'' to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities. But lower courts have split on how the law should apply to police conduct when public safety is at risk.
The Supreme Court initially took up the case because the city argued that the disability act does not apply when police face armed and dangerous suspects. But then attorneys for the city changed their argument to say that Sheehan was not "qualified'' for an accommodation under the law. Alito said it would not be "prudent'' to decide a question that hadn't been fully considered by lower courts.
In Sheehan's case, her social worker called police for help in restraining her so she could be taken to a hospital for treatment. Officers entered her room with a key, but Sheehan threatened them with a knife, so they closed the door and called for backup. But they said they weren't sure whether Sheehan had a way to escape, and were concerned that she might have other weapons inside.
The officers then forced their way in and tried to subdue her with pepper spray. But she continued to come toward them with the knife and was shot five times.
A federal district court sided with the police, ruling that it would be unreasonable to ask officers trying to detain a violent, mentally disabled person to comply with the ADA before protecting themselves and others. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to use less confrontational tactics.