Police search and seizure and qualified immunity in mental health emergencies

7 th Circuit reverses district court and dismisses 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against police officers for violating plaintiff’s fourth amendment right against unreasonable seizure, finding the officers had qualified immunity

Mucha v. Jackson, 786 F.3d 1064 (7th Cir. 2015)

Jason Mucha was a Milwaukee police sergeant referred for psychiatric examination after failing to report to duty for 7 months due to stress. In his examination, Mucha admitted to having had thoughts of committing suicide by cop, specifically “going to a command staff meeting with a rifle” and “shooting them until they shoot me.” Mucha stated that he did “not intend[] to do that” but that going back to work “could have a real bad ending.” The psychiatrist, in a report to the police department two weeks later, stated that sending Mucha back to work would be a “public safety issue.” The police sent two officers with Tactical Enforcement Unit backup to Mucha’s home to speak with him. At that time Mucha said he had no intention of harming himself or others, but he did admit to having dreams or thoughts of committing suicide or hurting others. The officers detained Mucha and took him to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Facility where he was admitted after the facility’s treatment director found that Mucha suffered from “adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct and mood” and so “posed a threat of danger to self or others.” Mucha was released after three days and filed suit for unreasonable seizure and false imprisonment. The District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied the officers’ motion for judgment on the pleadings with respect to their claims for qualified immunity.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, as they had not violated “any clearly established law, whether constitutional or statutory, federal or state.” Judge Posner noted that the officers had relied upon Wisconsin's emergency detention statute, which authorizes police officers to take a person to an appropriate mental health facility if they have “cause to believe” that the person is “mentally ill” and has demonstrated “a substantial probability of physical harm to himself or herself as manifested by evidence of recent threats of or attempts at suicide or serious bodily harm.” The district court had accepted Mucha’s Fourth Amendment argument that the officers did not “have probable cause to believe that he was mentally ill and posed a danger to himself and to other police officers.” The district court noted that the psychiatrist’s information was 15 days old when received, and thus was not “recent” within the meaning of the emergency detention statute. The Seventh Circuit rejected Mucha’s argument, however, noting that the Wisconsin statute does not define “recent” and that the definition can vary depending upon context. Given the nature of Mucha’s statements to the psychiatrist, the Circuit Court held that the statements were still recent or at least not clearly established as no longer recent. Moreover, the Circuit Court noted that “[a] state law cannot preempt the Fourth Amendment” but it “can establish a standard of conduct that is consistent with the amendment but particularized to a specific situation.” Because the “danger signals” known to the police at the time of their interview with Mucha reasonably triggered the emergency detention statute, “the defendant officers…were complying with a statute the validity of which is not contested.”

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2