The Lawletter Vol 40 No 11
A state must release a person who is involuntarily committed if the grounds for his commitment no longer exist. See O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 574-75 (1975); cf. Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972) ("[D]ue process requires that the nature and duration of commitment bear some reasonable relation to the purpose for which the individual is committed."). If the requirement to release the committed when they deserve to be let out is to have any meaning, a state must also periodically review whether the grounds for commitment are still met. Otherwise, a state could circumvent the timely release requirement by simply refusing to ever consider the continued propriety of commitment. To effectuate that requirement, then, the state must undertake some form of periodic review. See Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 607 (1979).
Periodic review of continuing involuntary commitments need not consist of an adversarial proceeding involving a judge or even an administrator. Nonetheless, the person charged with periodically reviewing continuing involuntary commitments must be required to consider the propriety of ongoing commitment. That person must also be authorized to order a release if the criteria for commitment are no longer met. See id. ("It is necessary that the decisionmaker have the authority to refuse to admit any child who does not satisfy the medical standards for admission.").
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was recently asked to consider the constitutionality of Florida's involuntary commitment scheme on behalf of J.R., an intellectually disabled man with an IQ of 56 who functions as a seven-year-old. J.R. v. Hansen, No. 12-14212, 2015 WL 5973269 (11th Cir. Oct. 15, 2015). As found by a lower court, J.R.'s intellectual disability would always exist, but his potential for dangerousness could change. In 2000, J.R. was charged with sexual battery in Florida, found incompetent to stand trial, and involuntarily admitted to the appropriate Florida agency. In 2004, he was involuntarily admitted to nonsecure residential services under a Florida statute. The order involuntarily admitting J.R. contained no end date.
J.R. lived in several different settings after his admission. While his commitment was characterized by the statutes as "non-secure," his liberty was substantially limited. If he were to have left his facility without permission, the police would probably have been called to return him to his group home. He was subject to a daily curfew of 10 p.m.; he could not drink alcohol; he had to "earn" the right to leave his group home, and when he did leave he had to always inform the staff exactly where he was going, the purpose of his trip, and when he would return. If he did not comply with these requirements, he could lose his right to freedom of movement. While the precise restrictions on J.R.'s liberty changed and could continue to change with the annual revision of his support plan, the circuit court had not held a hearing about J.R.'s commitment since 2005.
When a civil rights lawsuit was brought on behalf of J.R. under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Eleventh Circuit, reversing a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, struck down Florida's involuntary commitment scheme. The Florida provisions for the involuntary commitment of individuals with intellectual disabilities to nonsecure residential facilities facially violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to require periodic review of continued involuntary commitment by a decisionmaker with the duty to consider, and the authority to order, release. Florida's scheme did provide for annual review of support plans by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities ("APD"), which evaluated the most appropriate, least restrictive, and most cost-beneficial environment for a committee's treatment. However, the annual review did not consider whether the committee was a danger to himself or others, which is a requirement for imposing involuntary commitment. In addition, the APD lacked the authority to order release, as that authority remained with the state circuit court that authorized the initial involuntary commitment. Further, the APD was not required to petition the state circuit court for release when it determined that the circumstances that had led to the initial admission of a person with intellectual disability to residential services had changed.
The Eleventh Circuit reached its conclusion despite expressing sympathy for Florida's interest, as expressed in a statute, in involuntarily admitting the intellectually disabled to residential services in order to "prevent or reduce the severity of developmental disabilities" and to "enable individuals with developmental disabilities to achieve their greatest potential for independent and productive living." These goals were "honorable," but the court could not sanction the State's methods for achieving them. Id. at *9.