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By Miriam Raftery

March 25, 2015 (Washington D.C.) – The Supreme Court this week is hearing arguments in the case of San Francisco v. Sheehan to determine whether or not San Francisco police officers were justified in shooting and killing a mentally ill woman in her own home. The officers fired five rounds and the case centers on whether non-lethal force should be used first in such cases.

Hundreds of mentally ill people are killed by police each year—and the Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that at least half of all people shot to death by police each year have mental health problems. One estimate is that over half of all police shootings are of mentally ill suspects.

At issue is whether the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, should require police to take extra steps to avoid harming a mentally ill person who is acting erratically or even violently.  In the case in question, the woman was off her medications and holding a small bread knife. Could or should officers have been able to diffuse the situation without killing her, such as using a bean bag gun, taser, or other non-lethal method?

Oral arguments before the high court revealed stark differences in how justices view the issue, reports.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the legal question centers on whether the law protects “armed and violent suspects who are disabled.” While some of the justices seemed more concerned with threats to police officers or public safety, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that humanity must be infused into the proceeding – after all the woman was in her own home, not out trying to ambush police when she was confronted.

“Unless we want a society in which the mentally ill are automatically killed,” Sotomayor stated, “Isn’t the ADA ... intended to ensure that police officers try mitigation in these situations before they jump to violence?”

Justice Stephen Breyer had to recuse himself from the case, since his brother issued the ruling at the trial court level in this case.  That leaves the prospect of a four-four split, and one less voice to weigh in on this important case assessing rights of the disabled vs. safety of police and the public.

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