Involuntary Commitment and Loss of Right to Possess Firearms

In re Vencil Appeal of Pa. State Police, 152 A.3d 235 (Pa. 2017)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court interprets Pennsylvania statute governing challenges to loss of right to possess firearms following involuntary civil commitment for mental health treatment, holding that when reviewing a physician’s decision to involuntarily commit an individual, a court must find that the physician’s decision was supported by a preponderance of the evidence available to the physician when the decision was made.

Found in DMHL Volume 36, Issue 1

Use of Expert Mental Health Testimony in Criminal Cases

United States v. West, No. 14-2514, 2015 WL 9487929 (7th Cir. Dec. 30, 2015)

In a case of illegal gun possession that rested almost exclusively on defendant’s replies to police questioning that the gun in question was his, testimony by an expert that the defendant’s admission was unreliable due his low IQ, mental illness and high suggestibility should not be excluded.

Background: Antonio West was indicted for possessing a firearm as a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). The gun was found in the attic of the family home during a consensual search for a stolen television. No fingerprints were recovered from the gun, and there was conflicting evidence regarding whether West actually lived in the home in which the gun was found. As such, the case for possession rested on West’s admission to police that the gun was his. West’s attorney moved to suppress his statements to police based on expert testimony that West had a low IQ, suffered from mental illness, and scored highly on the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale. The district court denied the motion, finding that West had competently and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. West’s attorney then moved to admit the expert testimony at trial to (1) assist the jury in assessing the reliability of the confession, (2) negate the intent element of the offense, and (3) explain West’s demeanor should he testify. The judge excluded the evidence on all three grounds and the jury found West guilty.

Holding: On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and remanded for a new trial. The Court agreed with West that the exclusion of expert testimony regarding West’s IQ was reversible error. Because the government’s case relied heavily on the jury’s acceptance of West’s confession, the district court’s decision to exclude expert testimony regarding the potential reliability of that confession could not have been harmless error.

Notable Points

The expert’s testimony regarding West’s IQ was relevant to the question of the reliability of the confession: The Seventh Circuit held that expert testimony explaining that a defendant’s low IQ and mental illness could have influenced his responses to officers’ questions was certainly relevant and admissible where the major issue at trial was the reliability of the defendant’s confession. The expert testimony was highly relevant to the jury’s consideration of the defendant’s personal characteristics, and the government’s objection to the testimony went properly to its weight, not admissibility.

Erroneous exclusion of expert testimony warranted a new trial: Because the government’s case depended on whether the defendant knowingly possessed a firearm as a felon, and that determination rested largely on the defendant’s confession, the expert should have been allowed to testify. If he had, the jury might have discounted the defendant’s statement admitting that the gun was his. Given that, a new trial was required.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 1

Firearms Regulation

Kolbe v. Hogan, 813 F.3d 160 (4th Cir. 2016) reh'g en banc granted, No. 14-1945, 2016 WL 851670 (4th Cir. Mar. 4, 2016) 

Claims that a state regulation of the possession and use of firearms violates the Second Amendment must pass a “strict scrutiny” review. [Editor Note: This case does not discuss mental illness, but it appears that the standard would apply to firearms restrictions on persons with mental illness.]

Background: The Firearm Safety Act ([FSA] passed by Maryland in 2013) banned even law-abiding citizens, except for retired law enforcement officers, from buying or possessing most kinds of semi-automatic rifles. Plaintiffs challenged several provisions of the FSA on the theory that its restrictions on “assault weapons” and larger-capacity detachable magazines (LCMs) entrenched upon core Second Amendment rights. Further, plaintiffs alleged that the exception for retired law enforcement officers violated the Equal Protection Clause. The district court upheld the constitutionality of the FSA under the intermediate scrutiny standard and denied the plaintiffs’ Equal Protection claims.

Holding: On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that Maryland’s FSA implicated “the core protection of the Second Amendment” as articulated in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2010). Because the Fourth Circuit found that the FSA placed a substantial burden on a core constitutional right, it vacated the lower court opinion and announced strict scrutiny as the applicable standard for review of the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment Claims. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of the plaintiffs’ Equal Protection challenge, as well as the lower court’s finding that the FSA was not unconstitutionally vague.

Notable Points:

Strict scrutiny is the proper standard for challenging firearm restrictions under the Second Amendment: The lower court erred in applying intermediate scrutiny to the challenged firearm restriction. Strict scrutiny is the proper standard because the FSA ban on semi-automatic rifles and larger-capacity magazines restricts the availability of a class of arms used for “self-defense in the home.” That restriction implicates the “core” of the Second Amendment. Because the challenged provisions of the FSA substantially, rather than incidentally, burden that core right, strict scrutiny, rather than intermediate scrutiny, is the proper standard.

The FSA’s exception for retired law enforcement officers did not violate the Equal Protection Clause: Because retired police officers were not similarly situated with the public at large under the FSA, the grant of certain rights to those retired officers did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Specifically, the court found that retired police officers (1) possess unique training and experience related to firearms and (2) are granted a “special degree of trust” that instills them with “an unusual ethos of public service.” These two factors make them not similarly situated with the public at large for Equal Protection purposes, and justify the exceptions and special provisions available to them under the FSA.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 1

Provider Liability; Claims by Third Parties

Holloway v. State, 875 N.W.2d 435 (Neb. 2016)

Nebraska Supreme Court rules that state mental health service providers not liable for injuries to victim of a shooting by a mentally ill person released from prison upon completion of his sentence. [Editor’s Note: An 8 th Circuit case related to the same incident, Glasgow v. State, is covered in this issue of DMHL.]

Background: On July 20, 2013, Nikko Jenkins was released from prison after serving 10.5 years of his 21-year sentence. While in prison, Jenkins engaged in numerous violent activities and repeatedly exhibited signs of a serious mental health problem. On August 24, Jenkins shot Shamecka Holloway as she walked in her front yard in Omaha, Nebraska. As a result of the shooting, Holloway suffered permanent damage and incurred medical bills; she sued the State, the state department of corrections, and the company that provided mental health services for the department and several of its providers. In her complaint, Holloway stated that the State’s responsibilities with respect to the inmates included assessing and evaluating inmates in order to determine the need for mental health commitment, and providing adequate advance notice to members of the public regarding the release of a prisoner who threatened serious bodily harm to others. The complaint further alleged that Jenkins had told Baker and staff evaluators that he would hurt others upon his release. Thus, Holloway claimed that the State knew or should have known of the foreseeability of harm to her once Jenkins was released, and mental health care providers owed a duty to the citizens of Nebraska to correctly evaluate and treat all inmates. The district court dismissed all claims brought by Holloway. Holloway appealed.

Holding: On appeal, the Supreme Court of Nebraska held that the district court did not err in dismissing Holloway’s complaint. The court found that the State and its employees were entitled to immunity from suit because whether to seek commitment falls under the “discretionary function” exception to the State Tort Claims Act. Further, the Supreme Court of Nebraska affirmed the district court’s ruling that Holloway failed to plead sufficient facts to show that the mental health care provider was liable.

Notable Points:

A state actor’s performance or nonperformance of a discretionary function cannot be the basis of liability: The State Tort Claims Act (“Act”) contains a discretionary function exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity for certain claims. A two-step analysis is used to determine whether the discretionary function exception applies. The court must first consider whether the action is a matter of choice for the acting employee. Under the applicable statute of the Nebraska Mental Health Commitment Act, whether to communicate a belief that another person is believed to be mentally ill and dangerous is a matter of choice. Thus, the first step of the analysis was satisfied. The second step requires that when a statute involves an element of judgment, the judgment must be of the particular kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to protect. The court concluded that the decision as to whether to report to the county that another person is thought to be mentally ill is a policy decision that the legislature intended to shield from liability.

Mental health treatment providers are only liable for failing to warn of a patient's threatened behavior under certain exceptional circumstances: A psychologist or mental health practitioner is not liable for failing to warn of a patient’s threatened violent behavior unless the patient has threatened violence toward a reasonably identifiable victim. Here, Jenkins did not specify a particular person but rather threatened the “citizens of Nebraska.” Another source of liability could be founded on a custodial relationship, but the court concluded a custodial relationship did not exist because CCS was only contracted to provide medical services for inmates, not to exercise any kind of custody over inmates.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2

Firearms Possession by Persons with Mental Illness; Negligent Entrustment

Delana v. CED Sales, Inc., No. SC95013, 486 S.W.3d 316 (Mo. 2016) (en banc)

Missouri Supreme Court rules that a claim of negligent entrustment can be brought against a seller who sold a firearm to an individual after the seller had been specifically informed that the purchaser was mentally ill and had attempted suicide recently and was likely to do harm to self or others if given possession of a firearm, where the purchaser did subsequently use the firearm to kill another person.

Background: On June 25, 2012, Colby Weathers’ mother called the store manager of Odessa Gun & Pawn and asked him to refrain from selling a gun to her daughter who was severely mentally ill, informing him that Ms. Weathers had purchased a gun at the pawnshop the previous month and attempted to commit suicide. Two days later, the store manager sold a gun to Weathers and within two hours, Weathers had shot and killed her father. The State charged Weathers with murder but accepted her plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect and ordered her committed to the Missouri Department of Mental Health. Weathers’ mother filed a wrongful death action alleging that the pawnshop was liable under theories of negligence.

The circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Respondents, finding that Weathers’ mother’s negligence claims were preempted by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which protects the sellers of firearms against negligence claims. The court also determined that although the PLCAA provides an exception to this protection in cases of negligent entrustment, Missouri law does not recognize a cause of action for negligent entrustment against sellers.

Holding: On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the district court erred in determining that Weathers’ mother was precluded from proceeding with her negligent entrustment claim. The court found that, because Congress had expressly and unambiguously exercised its constitutionally delegated authority to preempt state law negligence actions against sellers of firearms, the PLCAA clearly preempted state law on point; thus, the PLCAA’s exception for negligent entrustment actions applied. What is more, the Court found that Missouri law does recognize a cause of action for negligent entrustment. The court concluded that negligent entrustment occurs when the defendant "supplies" a chattel (i.e., item of personal property) to another with actual or constructive knowledge that, "because of youth, inexperience or otherwise," the recipient will likely use the chattel in a manner that will result in an unreasonable risk of physical harm. Because Weathers’ mother presented sufficient evidence, the circuit court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of the pawnshop.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2