Involuntary Commitment; Constitutional Due Process

In re the Det. of M.W. & W.D. v. Dep’t Soc. & Health Serv., Washington, W. State Hosp., No. 90570-3, 2016 WL 3249495 (Wash. June 9, 2016) (en banc)

Washington Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of state statutory provisions authorizing commitment and re-commitment of individuals with mental illness on the grounds that they were charged with violent felonies and continued to present substantial likelihood of repeating similar acts, even after original charges dismissed on the grounds that the individuals were unrestorably incompetent to stand trial.

Background: The respondents' cases were unrelated but they were consolidated because they both challenged the constitutionality of involuntary recommitment. M.W. and W.D. were both charged with violent felonies and had their charges dismissed without prejudice after a judge determined that they were incompetent to stand trial and their competency could not be restored. In each case, the court ordered mental health evaluations to determine if they should be involuntarily committed, and each man was committed for 180 days of involuntary treatment. Prior to the expiration of the men’s commitments, the State utilized a new procedure for recommitting a person based on a judge’s finding that the person committed a violent felony. The new procedure allowed for recommitment in some circumstances based on a preliminary hearing, rather than a full evidentiary hearing, to determine whether “the person continues to suffer from a mental disorder or developmental disability that results in a substantial likelihood of committing acts similar to the charged criminal behavior.” The individual would then have the opportunity to rebut any findings through admissible expert testimony. The superior court commissioner declared the former statute unconstitutional and ordered the recommitment process to proceed without the unconstitutional provision. M.W. and W.D then received full evidentiary hearings assessing their eligibility for further involuntary treatment and were each recommitted to an additional 180-day period on other grounds.

Holding: On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the procedure for involuntary commitment did not violate substantive or procedural due process, vagueness or equal protection. The court also ruled that the statute did not violate an individual’s right to a jury trial because the periods of commitment are short and the state has a high burden of proof for recommitment. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the superior court and upheld the statute at issue as constitutional.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2