State v. J.S.

Annotate this Case
State v. J.S. (2002-126); 174 Vt. 619; 817 A.2d 53

[Filed 16-Dec-2002]

                                 ENTRY ORDER

                      SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 2002-126

                             NOVEMBER TERM, 2002

  State of Vermont                    }      APPEALED FROM:
       v.                             }      District Court of Vermont,
                                      }      Unit No. 2, Addison Circuit
  J.S.                                }
                                      }      DOCKET NO. 703-11-01 Ancr

                                             Trial Judge: Matthew I. Katz

             In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:

       ¶ 1.  Appellant appeals from an order of the district court
  involuntarily hospitalizing him for ninety days pursuant to 13 V.S.A. §
  4822 after appellant was found not competent to stand trial.  We affirm the
  district court's order. 

       ¶ 2.  Appellant was charged with negligent operation of a vehicle
  and attempting to elude a police officer in violation of 23 V.S.A. §
  1091(a) and § 1133 after allegedly driving his van in an erratic and
  dangerous fashion through downtown Middlebury and then failing to stop
  after a police officer displayed his flashing blue signal lamp and sounded
  his siren.  When arrested, appellant claimed that he was driving to the
  police station to alert police of "phosphorous poisoning" at Middlebury
  High School.  After a competency hearing held pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 4817,
  the court found appellant incompetent to stand trial.  There followed a
  commitment hearing pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 4820, where the court found
  appellant suffered from a mental disease, specifically delusional disorder,
  paranoid type, and that appellant's delusions led to a loss of judgment
  and, consequently, his dangerous driving.  The court determined that
  appellant was a person in need of treatment as defined by 18 V.S.A. §
  7101(17) and ordered him committed to the state hospital.  This appeal

       ¶ 3.  Appellant asserts three claims on appeal: (1) that the
  district court's conclusion that his driving violations were the result of
  his mental illness was not supported by the evidence; (2) that the court
  improperly determined that appellant was a person in need of treatment
  because there was insufficient proof of present dangerousness as required
  by Vermont's involuntary commitment statutes contained within chapter 171
  of Title 18 and incorporated into the criminal commitment proceedings
  through 13 V.S.A. § 4822; and (3) that the court's findings were deficient
  as a matter of law for failing to consider the availability of an
  appropriate alternative to hospitalization and the least restrictive
  conditions consistent with adequate treatment as required by 18 V.S.A.
  §7617(c) and (e).  We reject these claims. 


       ¶ 4.  To involuntarily commit a criminal defendant following a
  determination that the defendant was incompetent to stand trial pursuant to
  13 V.S.A. § 4817,  the trial court must first hold a hearing to determine
  whether hospitalization is necessary.  13 V.S.A. § 4820; State v.
  O'Connell, 136 Vt. 43, 46, 383 A.2d 624, 626 (1978).  The defendant must
  have notice of this hearing and an opportunity to present evidence.  13
  V.S.A. § 4821.  Moreover, the court must find that: (1) defendant is
  mentally ill, and (2) because of that mental illness, the defendant
  presents a substantial risk of injury to himself or others if allowed to
  remain at liberty; or lacks sufficient capacity or insight to make a
  responsible decision concerning the conduct of his affairs and social
  relations.  13 V.S.A. § 4822.  We will uphold the trial court's findings of
  fact as long as there is substantial evidence to support those findings. 
  In re N.H., 168 Vt. 508, 512, 724 A.2d 467, 470 (1998) (evaluating
  continued involuntary civil commitment).  We view the evidence in the light
  most favorable to the State and will affirm the commitment order if the
  trial court could have reasonably concluded that the required factual
  predicate was highly probable.  Id. at 512-13, 724 A.2d  at 470.  

       ¶ 5.  As a preliminary matter, we address the State's argument that
  appellant's claims on appeal are moot due to a subsequent commitment order
  issued after the expiration of the court's original ninety day commitment
  order.  Following appellant's initial hospitalization, the commissioner of
  Developmental and Mental Health Services filed an application in May 2002
  for continued treatment of appellant pursuant to 18 V.S.A. §7620.  The
  family court granted the application and issued a one year order of
  hospitalization.  Thus, the State argues, appellant's third claim on appeal
  is moot.  

       ¶ 6.  A case or a claim becomes moot when the issues presented are
  no longer "live" or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the
  outcome.  In re P.S., 167 Vt. 63, 67, 702 A.2d 98, 100 (1997).  An
  exception to the mootness doctrine exists when negative collateral
  consequences are likely to result from the action being reviewed.  Id.;
  State v. Condrick, 144 Vt. 362, 363, 477 A.2d 632, 633 (1984).  In mental
  health commitment cases, negative collateral consequences can apply because
  the "legal disabilities radiating from the label of mentally incompetent
  are myriad."  State v. O'Connell, 136 Vt. 43, 45, 383 A.2d 624, 625 (1978). 
  We find that despite appellant's continued hospitalization under an order
  for continued treatment, the negative collateral consequences of being
  initially adjudicated mentally ill and then involuntarily hospitalized may
  continue to plague appellant with both legal disabilities and social
  stigmatization.  See Condrick, 144 Vt. at 364, 477 A.2d  at 633.  Therefore,
  we decline to dismiss the appeal as moot and consider appellant's claims on
  their merits.
       ¶ 7.  Appellant's first claim on appeal is that the record evidence
  does not support the district court's conclusion that appellant's erratic
  driving through downtown Middlebury was a result of his mental illness. 
  Appellant is incorrect.  At the hearing on the State's petition for
  hospitalization, appellant's treating psychiatrist-a staff psychiatrist at
  the Vermont State Hospital-testified that appellant suffers from a mental
  illness; that his working diagnosis is one of delusional disorder, paranoid
  type; that the mental illness dangerously impairs appellant's judgment; and
  that appellant has problems maintaining self-control.  Based on this
  testimony, the district court found that appellant suffers from a mental
  disease, namely delusional disorder, paranoid type, and "that he has


  persistent delusions regarding phosphorous poisoning in his own, immediate
  surroundings and occasionally those of other places."  

       ¶ 8.  In determining that appellant's reckless and erratic driving
  was a result of mental illness, the court relied in part on appellant's
  statements to the arresting officer.  The officer testified that after
  appellant was eventually stopped and taken to the police station, appellant
  insisted on making a statement concerning the impetus for his erratic
  driving.  According to the officer's testimony, appellant stated that: 

       [h]e could sense phosphorous in the air.  He thought that there was
  too high a level of phosphorous in the air.  He had gone to the school to
  vote.  The complexion of the students in the school were bright red, and I
  think [J.S.] said that he can sense phosphorous being present because of a
  tingling sensation in his mouth.  He also said that phosphorous can eat
  away the calcium in your mouth, and he was on his way to the police station
  to tell us about phosphorous as a matter of public safety. 

       ¶ 9.  When asked if there was a connection between appellant's
  erratic driving and his mental illness, appellant's treating psychiatrist
  testified that, were the driving episode to have happened on the day she
  testified, given her knowledge of appellant's concern about phosphorous
  poisoning, "it would be likely that [his mental illness] had some bearing
  on his driving."  When asked to consider appellant's complaints about
  phosphorous poisoning made soon after his erratic driving, the psychiatrist
  stated, "I think that again would make it more likely that his actions were
  driven by his concern for poisoning."  Based on the totality of this
  testimony, we find that there was substantial evidence to support the
  district court's conclusion that appellant's erratic driving was the result
  of his mental illness.  See N.H., 168 Vt. at 512, 724 A.2d  at 470.  To the
  extent that the district court was required to infer any part of its
  factual conclusion, we presume that the court properly inferred the
  connection between appellant's mental illness and his erratic driving from
  its sound factual findings.  See State v. Danaher, No. 01-469, slip op. at 
  12 (Vt. Nov. 20, 2002) (mem.); Plant v. Ahlberg, 104 Vt. 16, 19, 156 A. 535, 536 (1931).  

       ¶ 10.  Appellant also claims that the district court improperly
  determined that he was a "person in need of treatment" because there was
  insufficient evidence to prove appellant was presently dangerous as is
  required by 13 V.S.A. § 4822.  The criminal commitment procedure followed
  by the district court in this case, contained in 13 V.S.A. § § 4814-4822,
  is distinct from the involuntary civil commitment procedure established by
  18 V.S.A. § § 7611-7623.  See also Condrick, 144 Vt. at 364, 477 A.2d  at
  634.  However, the Title 13 commitment procedure adopts and incorporates
  the Title 18 definition of a "person in need of treatment."  See 13 V.S.A.
  § 4822.  18 V.S.A. § 7101(17) defines a "person in need of treatment" as:

    a person who is suffering from mental illness and, as a result of
    that mental illness, his capacity to exercise self-control,
    judgment or discretion in the conduct of his affairs and social
    relations is so lessened that he poses a danger of harm to himself
    or others; 
         (A) A danger of harm to others may be shown by establishing

         (i) he has inflicted or attempted to inflict bodily harm on
             another; or 
         (ii) by his threats or actions he has placed others in
              reasonable fear of physical harm to themselves; or   
         (iii) by his actions or inactions he has presented a danger
               to persons in his care.

    Id. § 7107(17).  

       ¶ 11.  Appellant correctly contends that § 7107(17) requires proof
  of a "present danger of harm to himself or others as evidenced by threats
  or behavior" to satisfy the statutory definition of person in need of
  treatment required for involuntary criminal commitments.  To establish
  proof of present danger, the court must make factual findings as to whether
  appellant posed "a danger of harm to himself or others . . . ."  Condrick,
  144 Vt. at 366, 477 A.2d  at 634-635 (internal quotations omitted).

       ¶ 12.  In assessing appellant's present dangerousness, the district
  court considered the testimony of the police officer who attempted to stop
  appellant's van.  The officer testified that, notwithstanding the fact that
  he had turned on his blue lights and, after appellant failed to stop,
  turned on his siren, appellant drove at an excessive rate of speed and in
  an erratic and dangerous fashion through downtown Middlebury. 
  Specifically, the officer described appellant pulling around cars stopped
  at a yield or traffic sign and into the oncoming traffic lane to make a
  left hand turn.  Appellant completed the turn, but nearly collided with
  another car traveling through the intersection.  Appellant then sped down
  Main Street and swerved once again into the oncoming lane, passing a car
  stopped to make a left turn on that car's left side.  During this episode,
  downtown Middlebury was crowded with both pedestrians and cars.   

       ¶ 13.  Additionally, appellant's treating psychiatrist testified
  that appellant's mental illness directly affects his judgment and
  interferes with his ability to maintain self-control.  While she had not
  personally observed any aggressive behavior by appellant directed toward
  state hospital staff, the psychiatrist did note that appellant was placed
  under "one-on-one" supervision, meaning that a staff member is with him at
  all times "to avert, avoid, deflect, any aggressive or self-abusive
  action."  Moreover, the psychiatrist testified that, in her opinion,
  appellant posed a danger to others because appellant believes that people
  are trying to harm him and he might act on those beliefs.  According to her
  testimony, "[o]ften people who are delusional or psychotic are often most
  dangerous when they feel as though they are protecting themselves or
  protecting someone else."  She also noted that appellant does not believe
  he is ill or needs treatment, and that at the time of the hearing,
  appellant had refused antipsychotic medications.  
       ¶ 14.  Based on the evidence presented, the district court concluded
  that appellant posed a risk of harm to others.  We find that the evidence
  substantially supports this conclusion.  The court was correct in
  concluding that "causing a danger of harm to others as a motorist, as has
  occurred, as a result of mental illness, properly brings [appellant] within
  the statutory definition of a person in need of treatment."  See, e.g.,
  State v. Robinson, 146 Vt. 486, 489, 505 A.2d 674, 676 (1986) (finding of


  present danger required evidence that defendant's actions placed others in
  reasonable fear of physical harm).

       ¶ 15.  Finally, appellant argues that the court failed to comply
  with the directives of 18 V.S.A. §7617(c), which requires the court to
  determine "whether there exists an available program of treatment for the
  person which is an appropriate alternative to hospitalization" and forbids
  an order of hospitalization without a thorough consideration of available
  alternatives.  Id. § 7617(c).  As we noted in State v. Koch, 169 Vt. 109,
  730 A.2d 577 (1999), the Title 13 commitment procedure closely parallels,
  but is not identical to the involuntary civil commitment procedure
  contained in Title 18.  Id. (citing Condrick, 144 Vt. at 364, 477 A.2d at
  634); see also State v. O'Connell, 136 Vt. 43, 45 383 A.2d 624, 626 (1978). 
  Therefore, while the district court made no such inquiry or findings into
  the availability of treatment alternatives, there was no requirement that
  the court do so.  Condrick, 144 Vt. at 366, 477 A.2d  at 635.  In Condrick,
  this Court rejected a similar claim concerning an involuntary commitment
  following a finding that a criminal defendant was not competent to stand
  trial.  Id at 362-63, 477 A.2d  at 633.  The defendant challenged the
  commitment order because the trial court failed to determine whether there
  were less restrictive alternatives to hospitalization.  Id. at 366, 477 A.2d  at 635.  We noted, that "this finding is not required in the
  commitment procedures at hand but is a requirement, rather, of the civil
  commitment procedures under Title 18." Id.  Accordingly, appellant's third
  argument on appeal fails.


                                       BY THE COURT:
                                       Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Chief Justice

                                       John A. Dooley, Associate Justice
                                       James L. Morse, Associate Justice

                                       Denise R. Johnson, Associate Justice

                                       Marilyn S. Skoglund, Associate Justice