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Mental Health Law

Brief - Allocating the Burden of Proof for Civil Commitment Release Hearings - Green v. Commissioner of Mental Health and Mental Retardation ---A.2d----, 2000 WL 635438 (Me.)

In November 1996, plaintiff murdered her mother while in a psychotic and delusional state induced by the combination of bipolar illness and poly-substance abuse. She was put on trial and found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity and was automatically committed to the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI), pursuant to state law. In October 1997 she petitioned for release to a residential treatment facility, but because of procedural delays the hearing was not conducted until November 1998. At such a hearing, the statute provides that the movant must prove by clear and convincing evidence that such release is appropriate. Plaintiff was denied release and appeals, arguing that the statutory placement of the burden of proof on the movant is unconstitutional and that the court misapplied for the standards for release and that its findings of fact are clearly erroneous. The plaintiff testified at the hearing and her testimony was supported by her treating psychiatrist from AMHI. The state rebutted this testimony with its own expert, who found that there was no credible evidence to support the AMHI's expert's testimony that such a rapid transition to residential treatment was appropriate. Both experts agreed that plaintiff's underlying condition was permanent. Their disagreement was over whether plaintiff could be reliably medicated to prevent further psychotic episodes if she was in a residential treatment facility.

Plaintiff's constitutional claim was based on Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71 (1992), which concerned a Louisiana statute that allowed the continued commitment of a dangerous person after that person was no longer mentally ill. While Foucha has been traditionally read as barring the preventive detention of a dangerous person who is not mentally ill, it arguably is a much narrower decision that turns on the procedural defects in the Louisiana law at issue and does not establish a general bar to preventive detention of dangerous non-mentally ill persons. This court distinguished Foucha because Foucha had never been convicted of a crime, while plaintiff had been convicted (but found not responsible) in a traditional criminal law proceeding. Thus her commitment satisfied criminal due process standards, unlike Foucha. More fundamentally, plaintiff is clearly mentally ill and subject to the usual standards for release from a mental institution. Plaintiff made an equal protection claim based on the different standards the state uses for release of insanity acquittees and persons who are civilly committed. The court found that while all acquittees had been found to be dangerous to the community, many persons subject to civil commitment were only dangerous to themselves, and thus there is a rational basis for the state to use different standards for release. The court also rejected plaintiff's claim that she could only be held while symptomatic, finding that the law extended to those who, while asymptomatic at the moment, where still afflicted with a mental illness that rendered them dangerous. The court affirmed the denial of transfer to a residential treatment facility.

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