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As the United States Supreme Court has stated: A finding of "mental illness" alone cannot justify a State locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simply custodial confinement. There is no constitutional basis for confining such persons involuntarily if they are dangerous to no one and can live safely in freedom. A State cannot constitutionally confine without more a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.
Appellant Project Release is a not-for-profit corporation composed of persons who are or have been in New York State mental hospitals as either voluntary, involuntary, or emergency patients. Appellant Carrie Greene was a patient at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York, when this action was filed but has since been released. Defendants are various New York State officials responsible for administering the New York State M.H.L. On July 10, 1978, appellants filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging that the standards and procedures embodied in M.H.L. §§ 9.13 (voluntary), 9.27 (involuntary) and 9.39 (emergency) violate appellants' Fourteenth Amendment substantive and procedural due process rights. Appellants also alleged the following facts as to named plaintiff Carrie Greene: Greene was admitted on an emergency basis (M.H.L. § 9.39) to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center on April 22, 1978; received no judicial hearing until thirteen days later, on April 24, 1978; was converted to voluntary status (M.H.L. § 9.13) on April 28, 1978; pursuant to M.H.L. § 9.13 gave notice of her desire to leave but was not permitted to do so; on May 4, 1978 was converted to involuntary status (M.H.L. § 9.27) (with signatures of two physicians); requested release on May 11, 1978; and on May 23, 1978 was denied release after a hearing before New York State Supreme Court Justice Dufficy. On September 6, 1979, appellants moved for partial summary judgment as to those portions of their complaint constituting a facial challenge to the standards and procedures for involuntary and emergency commitment. Construing appellants' complaint as a facial attack on the entire civil commitment scheme, and appellees' submissions as a motion to declare the entire scheme constitutional on its face, Judge Neaher granted summary judgment for the appellees on all substantive and procedural issues raised by the parties.
Are the standards embodied in the MHL overbroad and vague, and thus violative of due process, for permitting involuntary commitment of persons with a mental illness for which care and treatment in a hospital is essential to such persons' welfare and whose judgment is so impaired that he is unable to understand the need for such treatment?
Recognizing that involuntary civil commitment "constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty that requires due process protection," the difference between civil and criminal confinement may nonetheless be reflected in different standards and procedures applicable in the context of each of the two systems -- so long as due process is satisfied. Moreover, section 9.27 as interpreted by a New York state appellate court, on its face embodies a standard designed to prevent the evil that appellants fear -- erroneous confinement of nondangerous persons who could survive in the community. This standard comports with the constitutional minimum set forth in O'Connor, 422 U.S. at 576. Thus, as narrowed by the New York state court's holding in Scopes, which requires dangerousness, the statute withstands appellants' overbreadth challenge. Finally, the court acknowledges the medical profession's ability to predict dangerousness, and the role of overt acts bearing on the issue, is hotly debated. However, the court is not convinced that, as a practical matter, the addition of a recent overt act requirement would serve to reduce erroneous confinements pursuant to section 9.27. Since O'Connor, in which the Supreme Court fashioned a broad rule that prohibits involuntary confinement of a nondangerous individual capable of surviving in the community, a number of courts have considered the question of whether due process requires overt conduct as evidence of dangerousness. Some courts have found such a requirement constitutionally mandated while others have not. After review, the court concludes that the New York State civil commitment scheme, considered as a whole and as interpreted in Scopes to include a showing of dangerousness, meets minimum due process standards without the addition of an overt act requirement. Further inquiry concerning the extent to which such a requirement might decrease the chance of error in predicting dangerousness may be better explored in the legislative forum.