Phyllis May was involuntarily taken to a hospital police officer Tommy Allen of the City of Nahunta, Georgia Police Department for a mental health evaluation. She subsequently sued pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 for an unlawful seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. May took this appeal from the district court’s order granting Officer Allen’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The issue in May v. City of Nahunta, Georgia is whether an otherwise authorized mental-health seizure was converted into an unconstitutional one by virtue of the seizing law enforcement officer’s conduct.
May was the sole care taker for her Alzheimer-stricken mother fell into a deep sleep after a taxing few days of caring for her mother. When May’s brother was unable to rouses May from her sleep he called 911 and four emergency medical technicians arrived in response. Officer Allen also arrived at the residence in response to the 911 call requesting his assistance and was told information by the EMT and his observations, he decided to seize May in her bedroom and transport her to the hospital for a psychological evaluation.
In conducting the mental health seizure Officer Allen asked the EMTs to leave the room and locked the door behind and informed May that she was going to the hospitals and instructed her to change from her nightgown to more suitable clothes. Despite her urging he refused to leave while he changed, handed her clothing, touched her shoulder roughly in an effort to pull off her nightgown, instructed her to remove her shorts and first put on her undergarments, and when she refused he insisted that she will while patting his gun. Officer Allen remained in the locked room alone with May for 15-20 minutes while ignoring May’s sister’s request from the other side that he open the door.
After she was taken to the hospital where she spent two hours she was released when it was determined there was nothing wrong with her.
May filed a suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 in the Southern District of Georgie against Allen and the City of Nahunta Georgia alleging an unlawful seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, false imprisonment in violation of the due process clause as well as state law claims against Allen for assault and battery, invasion of privacy, and false imprisonment.
The appeals court concluded that Officer Allen’s action in seizing May for psychological evaluation was justified. The officer had arguable probable cause to seize May for a psychological evaluation based on the facts presented by the EMT’s who reported to him May had been combative herself, upset, vigorously scruffing and hitting herself in the head. The officer could have reasonably have believed that May posed a danger to herself. The court is reluctant to second guess an officer’s decision to transport a person to the hospital to evaluate possible mental-health concerns.
Though the court affirmed the district court’s holding that Officer Allen was entitled to qualified immunity for the initial seizure, the appeals court reversed the district court’s finding that the officer conducted a lawful seizure and found the seizure was unreasonable. While the officer has arguable probable cause to seize and transport May to the hospital for evaluation, the manner in which he did so was unreasonable thereby violating May’s Fourth amendment rights to be free from seizure in which she was compelled by threat of deadly force to disrobe in front of a male police officer with whom she remained alone in a locked room for twenty minutes and the right was clearly established.