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In re J.W.

Decided: March 15, 1957.


Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, J.A.D.


We are concerned here with the legality of certain proceedings leading to the temporary confinement of a young woman, J.W., in the Bergen Pines County Hospital, a county institution, in June 1956. She was discharged on the return of a writ of habeas corpus by the Law Division, Bergen County, after a hearing. The defendant superintendent of the hospital appeals. The proceedings were instituted under L. 1953, c. 418, which contemplates admission of persons suffering from certain specified mental conditions for observation, for not exceeding seven days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, and it is consequently argued, inter alia , that the appeal is moot. Stizza v. Essex County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court , 132 N.J.L. 406 (E. & A. 1945). We are impressed, however, with the plea of the defendant that the cited enactment ought to have judicial interpretation for future guidance as a matter of public policy. We thus undertake consideration and determination of the merits of the case.

J.W. is 24 years of age and a college graduate. She is employed as a research assistant. Prior to the incident which gave rise to the present problem she had a history of psychiatric involvement, including several periods of hospital treatment, once for four or five months. Shortly prior to the hospitalization here brought in question a criminal complaint was filed against her in a municipal court for assault and battery and mayhem. The charge was based upon an alleged attack upon a female guidance officer in a public school. Contemporaneously a "Certificate of Physician" on a form self-described as "prescribed and approved by the State Department of Institutions and Agencies pursuant to Chap. 418, P.L. 1953" was signed by "Carl Wierum Physician" and "Lee Solworth, M.D. City Physician Englewood," and was used as a warrant for the taking of the plaintiff into custody at her home by a police officer and her confinement against her will in the Bergen Pines County Hospital. It was and is contended on her behalf that the certificate did not lawfully justify her forcible admission to

the institution, first, because the certifying physicians were not both in practice for five years, as required by N.J.S.A. 30:4-29, and second, because the plaintiff was not shown by the facts stated on the certificate or given in evidence at the hearing on the writ to have been in a condition which would evoke the operation of L. 1953, c. 418 (N.J.S.A. 30:4-46.1). The enactment reads:

"A person who upon examination by a duly licensed physician of this State shall be found to be suffering from a mental or nervous illness or from a psychosis caused by drugs or alcohol which renders him or her incapable of executing a voluntary application for admission to an institution maintained by the State or a county or a municipality treating such illness, may upon the certificate of such physician, the form whereof shall be approved by the Department of Institutions and Agencies, and in the discretion of the chief executive or other officer in charge of such institution, be admitted thereto for observation for a period not exceeding seven days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, unless such person is thereafter detained under the authority of a formal commitment entered pursuant to the provisions of sections 30:4-23 to 30:4-48 of the Revised Statutes or other applicable statute."

It may be noted at the outset that the mechanism for institutional admission provided by the 1953 act is on its face of distinctly different import and purpose from the comprehensive legislative plan for judicial commitment of the insane to public institutions found in N.J.S.A. 30:4-23 to 48, which stems from L. 1918, c. 147. The latter creates and governs an "action for commitment" and requires a judicial hearing and order, although, in some classifications, temporary commitment may be had in advance of judicial action. The subject of the proceedings is a person alleged to be insane, and, on the institution of the action, there is required to be filed a certificate of the subject's insanity by two physicians, under oath , each of whom must have been engaged in the actual practice of medicine for at least five years. N.J.S.A. 30:4-29. Insanity in the sense of that statute means a condition of unsoundness of mind of such degree that if the afflicted person were allowed to be at large

he would be a danger to life, person or property or a menace to the public. In re Heukelekian , 24 N.J. Super. 407 (App. Div. 1953). We may not lightly indulge the assumption that the legislative specification of only one certifying physician, without qualification as to period of practice, in the 1953 act, was undesigned. The differences in the criteria of the operative mental condition and in the period and purpose of confinement, as well as in respect to the nonjudicial nature of the proceedings under the 1953 act as contrasted with those in an action for commitment, support a literal construction of the more recent statute. It did not matter that Dr. Wierum, as is conceded, had not been in practice five years.

But we have concluded that plaintiff is on firmer ground in her contention that a factual showing was not made in the physician's certificate warranting her detention under the act relied upon by defendant. The first paragraph of the certificate is by Dr. Wierum and he recites therein that he made a personal examination of J.W. and "found her to be suffering from a mental or nervous illness," etc. , following the precise verbiage of the statute, including the reference to a "psychosis caused by excessive use of drugs or alcohol." There is no compliance with the direction on the form: "(Physician should here specify exact condition observed by him together with a diagnosis)." Under Question 2, this information is given:

"Number of previous attacks, Not known; age at first attack, Not known; duration of present attack, . . .; (If the patient has ever been an inmate of an institution for the insane, state when and where), Bellevue Psychiatric -- date 1954; Hartford Sanatarium -- date 1952."

Under Question 6 appears the following:

"Is the patient violent, dangerous, destructive, excited or depressed, homicidal or suicidal? (If either homicide or suicide has been attempted or threatened it should be so stated.) Admits ...

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