Supreme Court of California

590 P.2d 1

Conservatorship of the Person and Estate of Mabel ROULET

Feb. 6, 1979
As Modified on Denial of Rehearing
March 29, 1979

BIRD, Chief Justice

      In this case, the court must decide if proof beyond a reasonable doubt and a unanimous jury verdict are the proper standards to apply before a conservator can be appointed under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act's (LPS Act) grave disability provisions, with the power to involuntarily commit a conservatee to a state mental institution for up to a year.
      ... civil commitment to a mental hospital, despite its civil label, threatens a person's liberty and dignity on as massive a scale as that traditionally associated with criminal prosecutions.  ... In People v. Burnick ... a federal court of appeals opinion was cited to emphasize "'the indisputable fact that civil commitment entails a "massive curtailment of liberty" in the constitutional sense. [Citation.]  The destruction of an individual's personal freedoms effected by civil commitment is scarcely less total than that effected by confinement in a penitentiary.'"  ... As the United States Supreme Court has authoritatively written, "commitment is a deprivation of liberty.  It is incarceration against one's will, whether it is called 'criminal' or 'civil'." ... In a subsequent opinion, the Supreme Court reiterated that "civil labels and good intentions do not themselves obviate the need for criminal due process safeguards..." ..."the California Legislature has recognized that the interests involved in civil commitment proceedings are no less fundamental than those in criminal proceedings..."
      Nor can this court be swayed by the fact that appellant had her liberty taken away, allegedly for her own good.  "'Regardless of the purposes for which the incarceration is imposed, the fact remains that it is incarceration.  The rehabilitative goals of the system are admirable, but they do not change the drastic nature of the actions taken.'" [citation] The law must still strive to make certain that only those truly unable to take care of themselves are being assigned conservators under the LPS Act and committed to mental hospitals against their will.  As Justice Brandeis cautioned a half-century ago, "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent.  Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.  The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." ...  Therefore, the mere fact that appellant found herself confined in a hospital rather than a prison does not eliminate the need to protect her against false confinement.  ... Indeed, a conservatee may be subjected to a greater control of his or her life than one convicted of a crime.  ...
      The second issue which must be resolved is whether any "stigma" attaches when an individual is found to be gravely disabled due to a mental disorder.  ...  The legal and social consequences of commitment constitute the stigma of mental illness, a stigma that could be as socially debilitating as that of a criminal conviction.  ... A consistent line of cases decided by the United States Supreme Court and by this court require us to reject respondent's reliance on "civil" labels and to hold that since grave disability proceedings "seriously put at risk both the personal liberty and the good name of the individual, the safeguard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required." ... commitment equals imprisonment in its impact on a person's freedom.  ...
      The need for unanimous jury verdicts is all the more apparent when one considers the uncertainties that still surround psychiatric diagnoses.  ...  In People v. Thomas [citation] this court again noted that a person threatened with civil commitment was entitled to a unanimous jury verdict...
      Thus, this court has twice explicitly recognized that jury unanimity and the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt are slices of the same due process pie.  It would be curious indeed to grant appellant one without the other.  Therefore, this court concludes that appellant is entitled to a unanimous jury verdict for reasons identical to those which entitle her to the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  ...  This court has previously characterized the right to a unanimous jury verdict as "fundamental." ...
      ... History is haunted by the accusing cries of those locked away "for their own good."  It would be small solace to a person wrongly judged mentally incompetent that his road to commitment was paved with good intentions.
      Moreover, this court has previously questioned whether the reality of commitment conforms to its benign purpose. [citation] In many cases the "promise of treatment has served only to bring an illusion of benevolence to what is essentially a warehousing operation for social misfits."  ... 
      In the typical (including the case at bar), the potential conservatee is placed at an initial disadvantage because he or she is likely to be confined prior to the trial - either pursuant to a temporary conservatorship (§ 5353) or the conservatorship which is to be reestablished (§ 55358).  These constraints limit the individual's ability to communicate freely with counsel, witnesses, and others in preparation for trial.
      ...an individual's frantic or desperate reactions to involuntary commitment in a mental hospital do not, in themselves, prove that he is mentally ill.  ... "Mental illness" is generally acknowledged to be a vague and uncertain concept.  Categories of mental diseases are notoriously unclear, often overlap, and frequently change.  The experts themselves often disagree on what is an appropriate diagnosis. [citation] In addition, the literature reveals that some appointed counsel, regardless of how experienced they may be, tend to play a paternalistic rather than advocacy role in commitment proceedings.  ...
      The combined effect of these factors - the difficulty of defining mental illness, the factfinder's deference to psychiatric testimony, and the paternalistic attitude of some appointed counsel - lends strong support to the conclusion that proof beyond a reasonable doubt and jury unanimity are constitutionally mandated standards necessary to assure that LPS Act conservatorships are accurately established.  ... The due process clause of the California Constitution requires that proof beyond a reasonable doubt and a unanimous jury verdict be applied to conservatorship proceedings under the LPS Act.  This court's decisions in Burnick, Feagley and Thomas have already held as much in regard to other civil commitment proceedings.  ... Logic and law, as well as regard for the value of liberty, compel this court to follow those decisions today.

517 P2d 568

Supreme Court of Washington
en banc

Quesnell v. State

Dec. 28, 1973
As Corrected March 4, 1974

FINLEY, Associate Justice

This appeal concerns a mental illness civil commitment proceeding brought against the appellant...  With the advance of psychiatry... [there was] a growing awareness that such patients were often wrongfully incarcerated, [and] the 'railroading' techniques characteristic of earlier commitment proceedings came under legislative scrutiny and judicial review.  ... The Washington statutory scheme for commitment of the mentally ill embraces certain basic elements of procedural due process of law.  The defendant must be provided notice of the hearing, and advised of his rights to representation by counsel and trial by jury.  ...  First, the right to trial by jury in Washington mental illness proceedings is guaranteed by constitution (Wash.Const. art. 1 21) and statute (RCW 71.02.210).  ... the jury plays an essential role in guarding against wrongful commitment.  ...  the right to trial by jury in civil commitment proceedings is clearly fundamental.  [underline added]

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