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Mental Health Commitment – Sufficiency of Evidence

Manitowoc County v. Harlan H., 2011AP2499-FT, District 2, 1/25/12

court of appeals decision (1-judge, not for publication); for Harlan H.: Shelley Fite, SPD, Madison Appellate; case activity

Evidence that Harlan had put his wife in a headlock on one occasion and physically resisted a deputy’s attempt to detain him another, coupled with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, held sufficient to support ch. 51 commitment.

¶6        Wisconsin Stat. § 51.20 governs involuntary commitment for treatment of a person who is mentally ill and dangerous. Regarding danger, subparagraph 51.20(1)(a)2.b. indicates that a person is dangerous if he or she:

[e]vidences a substantial probability of physical harm to other individuals as manifested by evidence of recent homicidal or other violent behavior, or by evidence that others are placed in reasonable fear of violent behavior and serious physical harm to them, as evidenced by a recent overt act, attempt or threat to do serious physical harm.

The circuit court need not state explicitly that the evidence satisfies the statutory standard; rather, this court “may assume that a missing finding was determined in favor of the order or judgment.”  Hintz v. Olinger, 142 Wis. 2d 144, 149, 418 N.W.2d 1 (Ct. App. 1987).

¶7        Here, the evidence supports the circuit court’s findings and subsequent order committing Harlan.  While the circuit court did not explicitly indicate the subparagraph upon which it relied, the parties focus on Wis. Stat. § 51.20(1)(a)2.b., and the circuit court’s comments mirror that subparagraph’s language.  Reviewing the evidence, the circuit court noted Harlan’s physical act of grabbing his wife and putting her in a headlock.  The circuit court indicated that “there is a dangerous aspect to this man’s illness, and that others are reasonable in reacting to that dangerousness.”  The doctors’ testimony supports the circuit court’s findings.  In sum, the evidence supports the circuit court’s findings and the application of subparagraph b.

Given the diagnosis, Harlan’s challenge is necessarily limited to dangerousness, namely a “substantial probability of physical harm … as evidenced by a recent overt act, attempt or threat to do serious physical harm.” The court focuses on the doctors’ opinions (see ¶3), but this doesn’t really address whether Harlan had committed the requisite “recent overt act.” Did the headlock demonstrate Harlan’s propensity to inflict serious physical harm? Did his resistance to law enforcement authority? Maybe, maybe not. The court merely defers to the doctors’ conclusions.

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