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Evidence sufficient for initial commitment under 4th standard

Marathon County v. L.A.R., 2022AP1226-FT, 12/29/22, District 3 (one-judge opinion; ineligible for publication); case activity

“Laura” has suffered from bipolar disorder for over 30 years. At her initial commitment hearing, one examiner testified that she met the 2nd standard of dangerousness. Another testified that she also met the 4th standard. The circuit court held that Laura satisfied only the latter standard. The court of appeals affirmed.

The county’s evidence included testimony from “Lily,” Laura’s daughter. Lily said that before the emergency detention Laura was worried that someone had broken into her home and that Lily’s aunt had shot and killed someone. Laura accused Lily of working for the police. She pushed Lily against the wall, punched her a few times, and pulled her hair. When Lily ran to her car, Laura followed yelling. She accused Lily of car theft and started hitting the car. Lily admitted that she was not injured in this incident.

Lily also testified that Laura had run out of gas on three separate occasions in severely cold weather because she thought her car was electric. Laura started a fire in her home and called the fire department. She also flooded a room in her house by leaving the water running.

To commit a person under §51.20(1)(a)2.d, the county must prove recent acts or omissions showing that the person is unable to satisfy her basic needs for nourishment, medical, care, shelter, or safety such that without treatment there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical injury, debilitation or disease will imminently ensue.

Laura argued that there was no evidence that any of the incidents described were deadly or had the potential to cause serious physical injury, debilitation, or disease. Opinion, ¶12.

But the court of appeals held that the 4th standard does not require actual injury. Opinion, ¶13. Accidentally starting a fire and flooding her home while delusional placed Laura at risk of serious physical harm. Her impaired judgment caused her to run out of gas repeatedly in bitterly cold weather. And it is reasonable to infer that Laura would be aggressive toward others based on her physically aggressive behavior toward Lily while delusional. Therefore, the county carried its burden of proof. Opinion, ¶15.

We don’t know how Laura briefed this issue. However, she makes a decent point. The 4th standard focuses on harm to self, not harm to others.  The court of appeals said nothing about Laura causing serious disease or debilitation to herself. It was concerned about the possibility of “serious physical harm.” That is a term of art, which the appellate courts have not yet fleshed out in a published ch. 51 case.

Criminal law uses the term “great bodily harm” and “serious bodily harm.” Sections  969.001(2)  and 939.22(14) describe these types of harm as death, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss of a bodily member or organ.  Did Laura’s conduct put herself at risk for these particular harms? The evidence described doesn’t seem clear and convincing.

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