On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.
Before Judges Brody, Stern and Keefe.
The opinion of the court was delivered by BRODY, P.J.A.D.
This consolidated appeal requires us to review orders conditionally extending the involuntary civil commitment at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital of the three appellants, "otherwise entitled to discharge," due to the alleged "unavailability of an appropriate placement." R. 4:74-7(h)(2). At the time the orders were entered, each appellant had permanent living arrangements outside the hospital, either in rented quarters or with family, but the hospital treatment team had not yet completed a discharge plan with a community mental health agency for follow-up care as required by N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.18. We hold that the hospital treatment team's failure to arrange for follow-up care before a commitment hearing does not present the "unavailability of an appropriate placement" contemplated under R. 4:74-7(h)(2).*fn1
Appellants were involuntarily committed without a hearing pursuant to provisions of the civil commitment act. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.1 to -27.23. In its declaration of purpose, the act recognizes the constitutional importance of terminating such a commitment as soon as a committee no longer poses a threat of danger:
Because involuntary commitment entails certain deprivations of liberty, it is necessary that State law balance the basic value of liberty with the need for safety and treatment, a balance that is difficult to effect because of the limited ability to predict behavior; and, therefore, it is necessary that State law provide clear standards and procedural safeguards that ensure that only those persons who are dangerous to themselves, to others or to property, are involuntarily committed. [N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.1b.]
Based on the contents of screening and clinical certificates, the court initially found in each case that there was "probable cause to believe that the person is in need of involuntary commitment" and issued a temporary order authorizing admission to the hospital "pending a final hearing," pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.10. The "final hearing," at which the court must determine whether there is a "continuing need for involuntary commitment," must be scheduled within 20 days from initial inpatient admission unless the committee has been administratively discharged earlier. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.12. The orders under review were entered at final hearings.
An involuntary committee need not wait for the final hearing to be discharged. The hospital may administratively discharge the patient if its "treatment team determines that the patient no longer needs involuntary commitment." N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.17.
Under N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.11, the so-called patients' bill of rights, a committee is entitled to certain rights during confinement. Among them is the right "to have a discharge plan prepared for him and to participate in the preparation of that plan." N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.11eb(9). Where the patient is an involuntary committee, a community mental health agency "shall participate in the formulation of the plan" and "shall provide follow-up care[.]" N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.18.
N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.15 limits the court to one of three Dispositions at the final hearing:
a. If the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the patient needs continued involuntary commitment, it shall issue an order authorizing the involuntary commitment of the patient and shall schedule a subsequent court hearing in the event the patient is not administratively discharged pursuant to section 17 of this act prior thereto.
b. If the court finds that the patient does not need continued involuntary commitment, the court shall so order and the facility shall discharge the patient within 48 hours of the court's verbal order or by the end of the next working day, whichever is longer, with a discharge plan prepared pursuant to section 18 of this act.
c. If the court finds that the patient's history indicates a high risk of rehospitalization because of the patient's failure to comply with discharge plans, the court may discharge the patient subject to conditions recommended by the facility and mental health agency staff and developed with the participation of the patient. Conditions imposed on the patient shall be specific and their duration shall not exceed 90 days.
The designated mental health agency staff person shall notify the court if the patient fails to meet the conditions of the discharge plan. The court shall determine, in conjunction with the findings of a screening service, if the patient needs to be rehospitalized and, if so, the patient shall be returned to the facility. The court shall hold a hearing within 20 days of the day the ...