Montana Court Loosens Rules on Involuntary Commitment

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A person who does not present an imminent danger to themself or others can still be involuntarily committed to a mental institution and treated, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.

All that’s necessary is evidence that the person suffering from a mental disorder is unable to make rational decisions about their care or provide basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, health or safety, the court ruled on April 13.

The ruling affirmed a Powell County judge’s decision in the case of a Deer Lodge woman who was committed and treated against her will in August 2009.

“This realizes you don’t have to have a gun in your hand to be an imminent threat,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Before, it was like telling someone with Alzheimer’s not to wander into a blizzard. At what point is it OK to get that person help?”

Disability rights advocates complained the court’s decision may infringe on civil rights and protections for the mentally ill.

“We need to be careful on cutting back on someone’s civil liberties based on poor judgment or self-care activities,” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana.

In August 2009, officers were called on three occasions in which others reported the Powell County woman acting strangely or the woman falsely reported a tree was on fire.

A mental health professional evaluating the woman, identified only as L.R., recommended emergency detention at Montana State Hospital because she could not make reasonable and safe decisions from herself.

A second mental health professional, Michael Sawicki, said the woman was exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder and resisted treatment.

Sawicki concluded the woman could marginally provide for her own needs, but her condition would likely begin deteriorating within a week or two.

Elizabeth Thomas, the woman’s attorney, said the rights of her client were violated because she was involuntarily medicated and there was no specific information or examples that showed L.R. couldn’t make rational decisions for herself.

The high court agreed with Sawicki’s conclusion that L.R.’s mental illness could deteriorate until something dangerous happened and she would not be able to provide for her basic needs.

Justice Michael Wheat also cited the initial mental health professional’s conclusion that L.R. was unable to make reasonable and safe decisions for herself.