Late last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its decision in In re: Nancy White Vencil, 90 MAP 2015, which overturned the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s learned decision finding that a challenge, pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. § 6111(g)(2), to the sufficiency of an involuntary commitment was to be de novo, supported by clear and convincing evidence, where the burden was, in essence, to rest with the Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, the PA Supreme Court vacated the decision as it concluded that the Superior Court erred since, in its opinion
the plain language of section 6111.1(g)(2) requires a court of common pleas to review only the sufficiency of the evidence to support the 302 commitment, limited to the information available to the physician at the time he or she made the decision to commit the individual, viewed in the light most favorable to the physician as the original decision-maker to determine whether his or her findings are supported by a preponderance of the evidence.
Although the Court acknowledged that “By legislative design, there is no judicial involvement in the decision to effectuate a 302 commitment and no right to appeal the physician’s decision” and therefore affords no due process (an issue which Mrs. Vencil apparently failed to raise (pdf pg. 18 (declaring “Vencil has not challenged the due process protections provided by Section 302 of the MHPA. Nor has she raised a due process argument in connection with her right to keep and bear arms under the United States and/or Pennsylvania Constitutions)), the Court declared that a trial court is only
to review the physician’s findings, made at the time of the commitment, to determine whether the evidence known by the physician at the time, as contained in the contemporaneously-created records, supports the conclusion that the individual required commitment under one (or more) of the specific, statutorily-defined circumstances.
Interestingly, the Court did not address the sufficiency/review of the requisite records for an involuntary commitment, pursuant to 50 P.S. § 7302 and the implementing regulations. This is likely due to this issue not having been raised and therefore was not considered by the Court.
The Court went on to declare that
The Legislature could have broadly created an appeals process under the MHPA for 302 commitments, but it did not; it could have required a de novo hearing but it did not. Instead, it narrowly provided that under 6111(g)(2) of the Uniform Firearms Act, a petitioner is entitled only to have a trial court review the sufficiency of the evidence upon which the commitment was based.
It is also important to note that the Court recognized in fn. 4 (pdf pg. 7) that the Pennsylvania State Police waived any consideration of the statute of limitations. The Court’s acknowledgment of is somewhat concerning as a specific of statute of limitations has not been enacted by the General Assembly and the Court did not specify what the appropriate statute of limitation is for sufficiency challenges to civil mental health commitments.
It is for these reasons, including the lack of requisite due process, that it is imperative that the General Assembly enact a new law regarding mental health commitment appeals, in compliance with all dictates of due process.