Florida Supreme Court Considers Procedural Due Process of State’s Involuntary Commitment System

By Jacek Stramski

National attention is focusing on the lack of adequate public mental health services, which has turned the criminal justice system into the repository for individuals with mental health problems. The New York Times covered the issue recently, following a study released by the non-profit Treatment Advocacy Center. At the same time, Florida’s system of involuntary civil commitment is being scrutinized for a lack of procedural safeguards that would ensure the release of a person involuntarily committed who no longer meets the criteria for such commitment. And this when, according to the state of Florida, 20,000 people are apparently on the wait list for Home and Community Based Medicaid Services, including mental health residential services. (Ans. Br. at 18 and 23).

The workings of Florida’s involuntary commitment statutes were discussed in oral arguments held today before the Florida Supreme Court in J.R. v. Palmer (SC13-1549). Briefs in the case are available here.

The appellant in the case, J.R., was charged with a felony in 2000 and was found incompetent to stand trial in 2001. In 2004, after no evidence was presented that J.R. would ever be competent to stand trial, criminal charges against J.R. were dismissed and he was involuntarily committed to a residential facility under the care and custody of the state’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD). J.R. eventually challenged the statutes governing his involuntary commitment in federal district court, where he lost. On appeal, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals certified questions of statutory interpretation to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Florida’s involuntary commitment statutes provide the required procedural due process protections.

As background, a person may be involuntarily committed if the person has an intellectual disability and (1) the person lacks ability to consent and lacks basic self-care abilities such that no close supervision would result in a real and present threat to the person’s well-being; or (2) the person is likely to injure others if allowed to remain at liberty. Section 393.11, Fla. Stat. A person who has been involuntarily committed may only be released upon order of the committing court. Because involuntary commitment restricts an individual’s liberty, involuntary commitment requires rigorous due process protections, which the 11th Circuit in this case held to include a periodic review requirement to determine if a person continues to meet the criteria required for involuntary commitment. See Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 (1979) and Williams v. Wallis, 734 F.2d 1434 (11th Cir. 1984). The 11th Circuit’s opinion is available here.

J.R. argues that chapter 393, Fla. Stat., creates a facially unconstitutional scheme of involuntary commitment because it does not require APD to engage in a periodic review to determine if the individual remains a threat to himself or others after being committed, and because the statutes do not require APD to petition a court to order release of an involuntarily committed individual if the individual no longer meets involuntary commitment criteria. Therefore, J.R. contends, the statutes violate procedural due process requirements on their face because they do not explicitly require APD to take any action to secure a person’s release after that person would no longer be subject to involuntary commitment in the first instance.

The state counters that section 393.0651, Fla.Stat., which directs APD to conduct support plan reviews to determine whether a client is placed in the least restrictive facility, and chapter 393, Fla. Stat. generally, can be interpreted to imply a requirement that APD evaluate whether an involuntarily committed person meets the is eligible for such commitment, and, if such eligibility cannot be established, to petition the trial court for an order directing the person’s release.

If the Court refuses to read the periodic review and petition requirements into the statutes, the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals may find Florida’s involuntary commitment scheme to be unconstitutional.

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