Washington Supreme Court upholds civil commitment law

SEATTLE (AP) – The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 2013 law that simplifies the process for holding mentally ill people in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time if they were found incompetent to stand trial and efforts to treat them fail.

If a person is found incompetent to help with his defense and the charges against him are dropped, the state can ask a judge to civilly commit the person for a period of time. But the new law lets the state hold the offenders for longer periods of they can show that the person is likely to commit another violent act.

Lawyers for two offenders challenged the law, arguing it violated their due process rights. A trial court commissioner agreed and found the law unconstitutional.

But on Thursday, the state’s highest court reversed that ruling.

The government has an interest in protecting the public from violent individuals, and the law only slightly modifies the process for committing a specific group of mentally ill people, the justices said. The court upheld the statue, but emphasized that in order for prosecutors to commit someone under the law, the state must demonstrate over time that the person is still mentally ill and dangerous, and it must provide psychiatric treatment.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Washington said they’re pleased that the court recognized that holding a mentally ill person requires significant due process protections.

“These include that the state bears the burden of demonstrating, at least every six months, that the criteria for commitment are still present – the person is still mentally ill and dangerous,” the lawyers said in a joint statement. “We are also pleased the court agreed that in order to keep these people locked up in the state hospital for long periods of time, the state must provide treatment that is meaningful, and not just warehouse people.”

Two dangerous patients who recently escaped from Washington’s largest psychiatric hospital were held under the law. The Department of Social and Health Services refers to these patients as “1114s” — derived from bill passed by the Legislature, House Bill 1114.

One of the escaped patients, Anthony Garver, was charged in 2012 with torturing a woman to death, but after he was found incompetent to stand trial and efforts to restore his competency failed, the state committed him under the 1114 law. Garver is currently in federal custody for violating the terms of his release on a separate federal charge.

There are 19 patients being held under HB 1114 at Western State Hospital and nine are at Eastern State Hospital, according to Kathy Spears, a spokeswoman for the agency that oversees mental health services.

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