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Matter of Commitment of D.M.

November 28, 1995

IN THE MATTER OF THE COMMITMENT OF D.M., PETITIONER-APPELLANT. IN THE MATTER OF THE COMMITMENT OF F.J., PETITIONER-APPELLANT.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.

Approved for Publication November 28, 1995.

Before Judges Michels and Kimmelman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michels

The opinion of the court was delivered by MICHELS, P.J.A.D.

In these consolidated appeals, D.M. appeals from a civil commitment order of the Law Division that continued his involuntary commitment at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital (Trenton Hospital) subject to a review hearing in two months. D.M. seeks a reversal of the civil commitment order and the entry of an order placing him on conditional extension pending placement status, contending that (1) the trial court exceeded its authority under State commitment statutes by involuntarily detaining him at a State psychiatric facility without clear and convincing evidence that he presented a danger of serious physical harm to himself within the reasonably foreseeable future; (2) the mere possibility that he may exercise his right to accept or refuse neuro-leptic medication does not constitute clear and convincing evidence that he presented a danger of serious physical harm to himself within the reasonably foreseeable future; (3) the trial court erred in continuing his commitment where the State failed to present clear and convincing evidence that community services were not appropriate or available to meet his mental health care needs; and (4) the trial court violated his constitutional right to due process by involuntarily detaining him at a State psychiatric facility absent clear and convincing evidence that he presented a danger to himself, others or property. While this appeal was pending, D.M., following a review hearing, was placed on conditional extension pending placement status and released to a supervised residential health care facility.

In the second matter at issue in these consolidated appeals, F.J. appeals from a civil commitment order of the Law Division that continued her involuntary commitment at Trenton Hospital. While this appeal was pending, F.J., following a review hearing, was placed on conditional extension pending placement status and was subsequently administratively discharged. F.J. seeks a reversal of the civil commitment order, contending that (1) the trial court exceeded its statutory and constitutional authority by involuntarily committing her in the absence of clear and convincing evidence that she presented a danger of serious physical harm to herself within the reasonably foreseeable future; (2) her due process rights were violated because her continued confinement was not reasonably related to the State's interest in protecting her from harm or the State's interest in protecting others and their property; and (3) the trial court erred in continuing her commitment where the State failed to present clear and convincing evidence that community services were not appropriate or available to meet her mental health care needs. *fn1

We are satisfied from our study of the record and the arguments presented, that the trial court orders continuing the involuntary commitment of both D.M. and F.J. at Trenton Hospital are based on findings of fact which are adequately supported by the evidence and that all issues of law raised are clearly without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E). Therefore, we affirm the orders continuing D.M.'s and F.J.'s commitments at Trenton Hospital substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Fox in his oral opinions of March 24, 1994 and September 29, 1994, respectively.

We emphasize that the involuntary commitment of an individual "is a profound and dramatic curtailment of a person's liberty and as such requires meticulous adherence to statutory and constitutional criteria." Fair Oaks Hosp. v. Pocrass, 266 N.J. Super. 140, 149, 628 A.2d 829 (Law Div. 1993). See also Ziemba v. Riverview Medical Center, 275 N.J. Super. 293, 299, 645 A.2d 1276 (App. Div. 1994). Indeed, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has held that

personal liberty and autonomy are of too great value to be sacrificed to protect society against the possibility of future behavior which some may find odd, disagreeable, or offensive, or even against the possibility of future non-dangerous acts which would be ground for criminal prosecution if actually committed. [ State v. Krol, 68 N.J. 236, 259, 344 A.2d 289 (1975).]

The policy behind involuntary civil commitment is codified at N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.1b, which states:

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.

In light of this policy, our courts have taken a cautious approach to the involuntary commitment of individuals. "The civil commitment process must be narrowly circumscribed because of the extraordinary degree of state control it exerts over a citizen's autonomy." In re S.L., 94 N.J. 128, 139, 462 A.2d 1252 (1983). See also O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 575-76, 95 S. Ct. 2486, 2493-94, 45 L. Ed. 2d 396, 406-07 (1975); In re Commitment of A.A., 252 N.J. Super. 170, 178, 599 A.2d 573 (App. Div. 1991).

The standards for involuntary commitment are codified at N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.1 to N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.23. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.15a, as amended, sets forth the circumstances under which the involuntary commitment of a patient may be continued, and provides:

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 ...


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