Monday, September 22, 2014

Conditional Release from Insanity Civil Commitment Revoked Because Refused to Follow Group Home Rules

First, the background to this case concerning civil commitment pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4243.  Washington was found not guilty by reason of insanity at a bench trial in 2009 for the charged offense of robbery by force and violence (a threat to stab the teller with a non-existent knife in exchange for $2,711).  The district court committed him to a mental health facility for evaluation and treatment.  In 2012, the Bureau of Prisons certified that Washington had recovered from his mental disease or defect.  The district court held a hearing in April 2012 and conditionally released Washington “based on its finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that his release under a regimen of care and treatment would not pose a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person or serious damage to the property of another.”  One of the conditions of Washington’s release was that he reside at a group home, and this condition was an express component of the FMC Butner release plan.

In July 2013, the probation office filed a petition for a warrant for Washington’s arrest alleging that he violated the condition of residing at the group home.  Testimony at the revocation hearing established that Washington refused to sign a commitment to follow the group home’s rules, knowing that his refusal would result in an eviction notice.  One letter written by the group home’s program director that was admitted into evidence indicated that she “supported Washington’s exploration of less-restrictive housing options.”  Another letter indicated that Washington was becoming more aggressive to others, telling them not to report his breaking of house rules.

The probation officer testified that Washington was in compliance with his medicines, completed his GED, was enrolled in community college, was not mentally unstable, and had not been involved in any physical assaults or criminal charges while on conditional release.  The probation officer also testified, however, that she believed Washington tried to physically intimidate her at one point and that—while she could recommend a transitional home if an appropriate facility could be found—Washington could not be safely maintained in the community because he was not willing to follow the rules at any facility.

Based on this evidence, would you find that Washington “failed to comply with the prescribed regimen of medical, psychiatric, or psychological care or treatment, and that his continued release will create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person or serious damage to the property of another”?  See § 4243(g).

Well, the district court did, and the panel affirms “[b]ecause the doctors who crafted Washington’s release plan included residence in a group home as an express element, and because the district court’s substantial-risk finding was not clearly erroneous[.]”  The panel tries to curb what could “appear to lower the bar for re-commitment proceedings insofar as . . . earlier precedents generally have addressed individuals who refused to follow their doctors’ advice” by emphasizing that “every substantial-risk assessment must turn on the unique factual circumstances of each case rather than on an attempt to compare one individual to another.” 

Still, a record that simply reflects that Washington “was not getting along well with the people around him” without any professional medical opinion as to any risk posed by Washington’s release seems a little skim for a judicial “infer[ence] that his increasingly verbal aggressiveness was a sign of dangerousness, or even potential illness, rather than a sign of recovery and attendant resurgence of his desire for autonomy.”  Given district judges’ “awesome responsibility to protect the public and to strike the difficult balance with individual liberty,” however, the panel does not disturb the district judge’s order.

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