Defendant Detained in Mental Health Facility for Restoration to Competency is Prisoner under Prison Litigation Reform Act

Gibson v. City Municipality of New York, 692 F.3d 198 (2012)

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the district court’s dismissal of a petitioner’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis, resulting in dismissal of his complaint against a number of city, corrections and mental health officials alleging they violated his civil rights. The petitioner had filed three previous petitions as a prisoner that had been dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The Court held that although the petitioner was being detained in a mental health facility, he was still a “prisoner” for purposes of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), and thus subject to the Act’s limitation on proceeding in forma pauperis in federal court.

The petitioner, Bennie Gibson, had been charged with third degree criminal mischief under New York law and was being detained at Kirby Psychiatric Center in the custody of the Commissioner of Mental Health on a temporary order of observation for restoration of his capacity to stand trial. While federal law generally permits a district court to waive filing fees for individuals who cannot pay and to proceed in forma pauperis, Congress enacted the Prison Reform Litigation Act in 1995 to limit abuse of the legal system by prisoners who file repetitive frivolous complaints. “Prisoner” is defined under the Act as “any person…detained in any facility who is accused of…violations of criminal law.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(h). Under New York law, criminal charges are not dismissed against a defendant held in the temporary custody of the Commissioner of Mental Health, but are merely suspended pending his treatment and restoration to capacity. Gibson therefore met the definition of a prisoner as a person detained as a result of an accusation, conviction, or sentence for a criminal offense. Had Gibson been held under a final order of observation as a civil unrestorable patient, been found not guilty by reason of insanity, or been civilly committed as a sexually violent predator, the result may not have been the same.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 1