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Evidence sufficient to support ch. 51 dangerousness finding

Marathon County v. T.A.T., 2019AP1709, District 3, 6/29/21 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

The testimony of the the three witnesses called by the County provided sufficient evidence to support the court’s finding that T.A.T. (“Travis”) was dangerous under § 51.20(1)(a)2.a.

Travis was emergently detained after he was found on the ground near a lake, apparently intoxicated, saying he “just wanted to be by the lake and die.” At his commitment hearing, the County called two court-appointed examiners (Coates and Starr) and the psychiatrist who treated Travis after his emergency detention (Dibala). (¶¶2-13). Travis testified, too, admitting he had struggled with depression and drank excessively on this occasion; but he also denied he was suicidal, acknowledged counseling was helpful,  and agreed he needed medication. (¶¶14-15).

A person is dangerous under § 51.20(1)(a)2.a. if the petitioner proves there is a substantial probability the person will harm himself or herself based on evidence of recent threats of suicide. Citing Outagamie County v. Michael H., 2014 WI 127, 359 Wis. 2d 272, 856 N.W.2d 603, the court of appeals holds the testimony of the three psychiatrists supported the trial court’s conclusion that standard was met:

¶25     Under Michael H., Travis’s statements during the October 2018 incident by the lake constituted recent threats of suicide. Again, [Officer] Slizewski testified that during that incident, Travis “continuously said over and over again that he wanted us to leave him alone, leave him there to die, that he just wanted it all to be over.” Those statements certainly qualified as “indication[s] of impending danger or harm” to Travis. See id., ¶34.

¶26     Although Travis testified he had no intention of killing himself during the October 2018 incident, the circuit court was not required to accept his testimony in that regard. …. And, contrary to Travis’s testimony, Coates testified that Travis “told me that he was hospitalized because he became alcohol intoxicated and then suicidal.” (Emphasis added.) Coates also testified that Travis had “thoughts of killing himself by drowning.” Coates’ testimony gives rise to a reasonable inference that Travis’s statements during the October 2018 incident were not mere drunken ramblings but instead were threats of suicide on which Travis had an intent to act.

It doesn’t matter that Coates expressly denied that Travis’s risk of suicide was substantial (¶27), or that the other two doctors, and the court itself, didn’t refer to the substantial probability standard in their testimony or findings. The experts and the judge need not incantate “magic words” to support the commitment, Marathon County v. D.K., 2020 WI 8, ¶54, 390 Wis. 2d 50, 937 N.W.2d 901. So:

¶34     …[W]e … conclude that the experts’ testimony was sufficiently linked to the dangerousness standard in Wis. Stat. § 51.20(1)(a)2.a. Based on the October 2018 incident, Travis’s prior suicide attempts, and the combined effects of his alcohol consumption and major depressive disorder, Starr testified that Travis posed a “significant or substantial risk of dangerousness moving forward.” When asked whether Travis posed “a substantial risk of dangerousness to himself,” Dibala responded, in part, that he was “at a risk for suicide” based on the October 2018 incident and his prior suicide attempts. Based on Travis’s risk of dangerousness to himself, both experts recommended that he be committed for treatment. On this record, although neither Starr nor Dibala precisely recited the language set forth in § 51.20(1)(a)2.a., it is clear they both determined that Travis met the standard for dangerousness set forth in that subdivision paragraph.

¶35     The circuit court, in turn, clearly determined that Travis was dangerous under Wis. Stat. § 51.20(1)(a)2.a., even though the court stated he posed a “substantial risk” of harm to himself rather than a “substantial probability”of harm. ….

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