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Defense wins! Initial commitment and recommitment reversed due to D.J.W. and evidentiary errors

Trempealeau County v. C.B.O., 2021AP1955 & 2022AP102, 8/30/22, District 3, (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity

This is a double defense win! You might even call it a quadruple defense win! The court of appeals consolidated “Chris’s” appeals from his initial commitment order and his recommitment order. It reversed his initial commitment order because (1) the circuit court violated Langlade County v. D.J.W. and (2) the county’s evidence was insufficient. It reversed the recommitment order because (3) the circuit court’s fact findings were clearly erroneous, and (4) all the county proved was that if treatment were withdrawn Chris would engage in the same conduct that was insufficient to support the initial commitment.

Initial commitment. Chris argued that the circuit court failed to specify which standard of dangerousness it was committing him under, and the evidence was insufficient under any of the first 4 standards. (The 5th was not in play).

The county claimed that D.J.W.‘s holding (that the circuit court must specify a standard of dangerousness) applied only to recommitment proceedings. The court of appeals has rejected this argument several times, and it did again here. Opinion, ¶28 (citing other cases re same).

The court of appeals also rejected the county’s argument that circuit court’s reference to “physical harm to others” was sufficient to show that it was committing Chris under the 2nd or the 3rd standard of dangerousness. For starters, the circuit court did not make all of the requisite findings under those standards. Plus, Chris challenged the sufficiency of the evidence of dangerousness, so the circuit court’s failure to specify a standard was not harmless error. Opinion, ¶¶30-31.

While the court of appeals could have reversed based on the D.J.W. error, it proceeded to explain why the evidence was insufficient to support an initial commitment. The county failed to satisfy the 1st standard of dangerousness because there was no evidence that Chris threatened or attempted harm to himself. Opinion, ¶34.

The county failed the 2nd standard of dangerousness because there was no evidence that Chris engaged in any recent homicidal or violent behavior and no recent overt acts. Chris had been concerned about hitmen. He barricaded his door. When police got a look inside they saw that Chris had weapons in his apartment such as a crossbow, a hatchet next to his bed, and a knife in his grill.  He had also recently tried to acquire a firearm. Opinion,  ¶¶4-5. But there was no evidence that he attempted serious physical harm to anyone or that anyone was placed in fear of such harm from him. Opinion, ¶35.

The county failed the 3rd standard of dangerousness because, while the doctor testified that Chris’s judgment was impaired due to mental illness, the county did not show a substantial probability that this would lead to physical impairment or injury to Chris or anyone else. When Chris said he saw hitmen in the hallway there were no other tenants in the complex so nobody was at risk of serious physical harm. Nor did Chris did open his door and challenge the hitmen. He called the police. He tried to avoid conflict, not instigate it. Opinion,  ¶¶37-39.

And the county failed the 4th standard of dangerousness because there was no evidence that Chris could not care for himself. On the contrary, he maintained a very clean apartment in good living condition. Opinion, ¶40.

In a nutshell, the court of appeals rejected the idea a mentally ill person may be committed because “he might behave dangerously in hypothetical situations without evidentiary support in the record.” Opinion, ¶41 (emphasis in original). Indeed, all of the dangerousness standards for an initial commitment require recent acts of the sort that were not present here.

Recommitment. The court of appeals reversed Chris’s recommitment for two reasons. First, a very rare basis for reversal, the circuit court made factual findings that were clearly erroneous. Without getting into the nitty gritty, the record simply did not support some of the facts that the circuit court found. Nor did the circuit court accurately summarize the evidence from the initial commitment proceeding. Opinion,  ¶¶44-48.

Second, the evidence at the recommitment hearing showed that Chris was doing “quite well” during his commitment and that had returned to his baseline level of functioning. Chris admitted that he would stop medication if released from commitment. That was not grounds for recommitment because if treatment were withdrawn and he began behaving the way he did before his initial commitment, his behavior would not warrant commitment. (See above re the insufficiency of evidence for his initial commitment). Opinion,  ¶¶49-52.

 

 

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