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Law School Case Brief

Lessard v. Schmidt - 349 F. Supp. 1078 (E.D. Wis. 1972)


Civil confinement can be justified in some cases if the proper burden of proof is satisfied and dangerousness is based upon a finding of a recent overt act, attempt or threat to do substantial harm to oneself or another. 


Plaintiff Alberta Lessard was picked up by two police officers and taken to a mental health center, where she was held on an emergency basis. After an ex parte proceeding, the judge issued a confinement order for 10 days. The doctor sought permanent commitment. The judge found that Lessard was mentally ill and ordered her commitment for an additional 30 days. Lessard brought a class action in federal district seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of the involuntary commitment based on the Wisconsin civil commitment statute. 


Was the Wisconsin civil commitment statute unconstitutional?




The district court found that the statute was unconstitutional because it failed to afford persons alleged to be mentally ill with adequate procedural safeguards. The scheme failed to require effective and timely notice of the charges for detention, permitted a detention for longer than 48 hours without a hearing on probable cause, and allowed the admission of hearsay. Psychiatric evidence was admissible without the detainee being given the benefit of the privilege against self-incrimination. In addition, the statute did not require the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the detainee was both mentally ill and dangerous. Finally, less restrictive alternatives to commitment were not considered.

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