California Supreme Court Finds Evaluation and Certification Procedures Not Commitment Criteria under Mentally Disordered Offender Act

People v. Harrison, 57 Cal.App.4th 1211, 164 Cal.Rptr.3d 167, 312 P.3d 88 (2013)

The California Mentally Disordered Offender Act, Penal Code § 2962, requires a state prisoner either during or after parole to be civilly committed whenever a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation chief psychiatrist certifies that he suffers from a serious mental disorder that is not or cannot be kept in remission without treatment, that the disorder was one of the causes of or an aggravating factor in the crime, that the prisoner has been in treatment for at least 90 days within the year preceding release on parole, and that the prisoner presents a substantial risk of physical harm to others as a result of the disorder. The California Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals that held that the evaluation and certification procedures used to determine a prisoner is a mentally disordered offender also constitute the criteria which the state must prove to civilly commit him.

Kelvin Harrison had been convicted of battery with serious bodily injury in March 2009 and sentenced to two years in prison. At his parole release date in February 2010, Harrison was required to accept treatment as a mentally disordered offender and in April 2010, the Board of Parole Hearings upheld that determination. Harrison then petitioned for a hearing in superior court challenging the Board’s determination. At trial, a forensic psychologist testified that he had interviewed Harrison at the request of the Parole Board in March 2010, and had reviewed his mentally disordered offender evaluations, his psychiatric records and prison file. Harrison had been discharged from the military in 1983 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and depression. The psychologist testified that he diagnosed Harrison as suffering from schizophrenia, paranoia type, which impaired his thoughts and perceptions of reality and grossly impaired his behavior. Harrison displayed paranoid and grandiose delusions that San Luis Obispo County officials and law enforcement were conspiring against him and trying to do him harm. He further testified that Harrison’s schizophrenia was an aggravating factor in his crime. At the time of the offense, Harrison believed that grapes in a bag on the ground were filled with blood, interpreting this to mean his victim intended to harm him. He then struck the victim several times with a pipe. Harrison had also received more than 90 days of treatment within the prior year, both in prison and at Patton State Hospital. The psychologist also testified that Harrison lacked insight into his disorder ant that he was prone to misinterpret environmental clues suggesting he was at physical risk. As a result, Harrison was unable to control his behavior, unlikely to seek treatment, and therefore presented an ongoing risk of committing violent crime. After hearing the evidence presented, the superior court found Harrison met the criteria for a mentally disordered offender and committed him to the Department of State Hospitals for one year.

The California Mentally Disordered Offender Act was enacted in 1985 and requires a prisoner convicted of certain felonies related to a severe mental disorder who continues to pose a danger to the public to receive appropriate treatment until the disorder can be kept in remission. The purpose of the Act is to protect the public while treating severely mentally ill offenders. The initial commitment is a condition of parole. Prior to release on parole, the person in charge of treating the prisoner and a psychiatrist from the Department of State Hospitals must evaluate the prisoner. If the prisoner is at the time being treated in a state hospital, the person treating the prisoner and a psychiatrist from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must examine him. These evaluators must find, and a chief psychiatrist of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must certify, that the prisoner has a severe mental disorder, that the disorder is not in remission or cannot be kept in remission without treatment, that the disorder was a cause of or an aggravating factor in a crime for which he was sentenced, that the prisoner had been in treatment for 90 days or more in the year preceding his release on parole, and the prisoner represents a substantial danger of physical harm to others because of the disorder. If the professionals conducting the evaluation disagree, the Board of Parole Hearings must order a further examination by two independent professionals. A prisoner who wants to challenge his certification may request a hearing before the Board of Parole Hearings. If he disagrees with this decision, the prisoner may petition the superior court for a determination as to whether he met the statutory criteria as of the date of the Parole Board hearing. The burden is on the state to prove the statutory criteria beyond a reasonable doubt.

Harrison appealed the commitment decision to the Court of Appeals arguing that the statutory criteria also included the evaluation and certification procedures because they were contained in the same statute, and the state had failed to present evidence that they had been performed. The Court of Appeals agreed and ordered his release on the grounds that there was no evidence in the record that Harrison had been evaluated and certified by the various staff specified in the statute. The Court of Appeals held that the criteria required to certify a prisoner as a mentally disordered offender included not only the substantive criteria used by the mental health professionals to determine whether he was such an offender, but also the procedures by which that determination was made.

The State appealed that decision to the California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, by contrast, reviewed the legislative history and found that the legislature had clearly distinguished between the substantive criteria used by the specified mental health professionals to determine whether a prisoner is a mentally disordered offender from the process by which the determination was to be made. In addition, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Department of State Hospitals, the two state agencies responsible for implementing the law, both had adopted implementing regulations setting out the criteria for determining which offenders are mentally disordered offenders, specifying only the substantive criteria, and not the procedures by which the determination is made. The Supreme Court therefore found that an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute governing its powers and duties is entitled to great weight. The Court held that this interpretation also comports with the purpose of the statute. It said that the public’s interest in safety and the prisoner’s need for treatment are not furthered by having the trier of fact determine whether a particular certification was performed by a specified professional or at a particular place.

The Supreme Court compared this Act with the Sexually Violent Predator Act, Welf. & Inst. Code, § 6600 et seq., another involuntary commitment scheme sharing the same purpose. Before an SVP commitment petition may be filed two evaluators must agree that the person has a diagnosed mental disorder and is likely to engage in acts of sexual violence without appropriate treatment. The Court stated that in these cases the State does not need to prove this concurrence to the trier of fact. Rather it is a collateral procedural condition designed to ensure that SVP proceedings are initiated only when there is a substantial factual basis for doing so.

The Court also reasoned that requiring the State to prove only that a chief psychiatrist certified the prisoner as presenting substantial harm to others, as Harrison argued, and not that the prisoner actually did meet these requirements would raise constitutional concerns. It stated that the equal protection clause of the federal and state constitutions would require proof of present dangerousness. The Supreme Court also found that simply because the criteria only contains the substantive provisions of the statute and not the procedural conditions, the Court of Appeals fear that the Department of Corrections would not follow them and the prisoner could not then challenge compliance with them was not possible. A defendant in any case may raise similar procedural challenges before a trial court. These include objections to venue or speedy trial rights. If the prisoner raises the flaw prior to trial, he may obtain the relief needed without resort to a full trial. Here, however, Harrison did not object to any defect in the procedures underlying the evaluation process and therefore waived them. Absent an objection, the State does not have an obligation to prove compliance with the underlying procedures.

The Supreme Court therefore held that the Mentally Disabled Offender statute only requires that the prisoner meet the substantive criteria that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The statute does not require that compliance with the evaluation and certification procedures be proved to the trier of fact. That becomes a question of law to be addressed by the court upon the prisoners’ objection.

Found in DMHL Volume 33 Issue 2