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Matter of D.C.

August 6, 1996

IN THE MATTER OF D.C.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 281 N.J. Super. 102 (1995).

Justices Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice Handler's opinion. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

IN THE MATTER OF D.C. (A-123-95)

Argued April 29, 1996 -- Decided August 6, 1996

HANDLER, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This appeal challenges the authority of the Attorney General to initiate and participate in involuntary civil commitment proceedings.

On July 12, 1980, D.C. kidnapped, tortured and raped a female victim. He pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, and possession of a knife. He was sentenced to the Avenel Diagnostic and Treatment Center (Avenel) for two concurrent twenty-year terms with a ten-year period of parole ineligibility.

Tests of D.C. at Avenel indicated that he was unable to control his thoughts or behavior and had inadequate control over his impulses. D.C. reported to his therapist, Dr. Kay Jackson, that he continued to have violent sexual fantasies and if released would commit the same kind of crime he had committed in the past. Psychiatrists at Avenel examined D.C. at Dr. Jackson's request. They agreed with Dr. Jackson that D.C. was potentially dangerous and would commit a sexual offense again. Nonetheless, they concluded that D.C. was not eligible for involuntary commitment because he was not "openly psychotic."

D.C was released from Avenel in 1992 after serving twelve years. Dr. Jackson contacted local law enforcement authorities in Wyckoff Township, the Bergen County community where D.C. intended to reside, to warn them of her opinion that D.C. was dangerous. Dr. Jackson also contacted the Bergen County Prosecutor.

Shortly after his release, D.C. submitted voluntarily to an evaluation at a local psychiatric screening service. The psychiatrist that examined D.C. determined that he was not mentally ill. The Wyckoff Police and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office also conducted a close surveillance of D.C. He was observed engaging in various types of peculiar behavior.

The Attorney General (AG) investigated the circumstances of D.C.'s release from Avenel and concluded that Avenel's staff had applied an incorrect standard in authorizing D.C.'s release. The AG sought a court ordered psychiatric examination of D.C. to determine whether involuntary commitment proceedings against him should be initiated. After a hearing on that request, the trial court noted that, although the statute and court rules did not authorize the application, the AG was acting in her capacity as parens patriae. The court granted the relief sought by the AG and ordered psychiatric examinations of D.C.

After D.C. was examined, the court held a hearing to determine whether there was probable cause to believe that D.C. was in need of involuntary commitment. The court found probable cause and ordered D.C. temporarily committed to Bergen Pines County Hospital, pending a plenary hearing. In February 1993, four examining physicians testified at the plenary hearing. Based on the evidence presented, the trial court found that D.C. was "in need of involuntary commitment." D.C. was transferred to the Forensic Hospital in Trenton.

In June 1993, D.C.'s commitment was reviewed. On July 1, 1993, the trial court ordered his continued confinement, concluding that D.C. was mentally ill and dangerous. In March 1994, after a second review hearing, the court determined that D.C.'s commitment should be continued.

D.C. appealed the February 1993 commitment decision and the July 1993 decision for continued commitment. D.C. filed a second appeal of the March 1994 commitment decision. A divided panel of the Appellate Division reversed the decision of the trial court that ordered D.C.'s initial temporary involuntary commitment. The majority determined that the initial confinement based on the AG's request for a psychiatric examination was not authorized by statute or under the State's inherent parens patriae powers, and that D.C.'s subsequent commitments did not conform to the procedural requirements of the civil commitment statute.

The State appeals as of right based on the Dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD :

Through the 1994 amendments to the civil commitment statute, the Legislature intended to enact remedial legislation to effectuate its purpose to confine persons who are found to be dangerous due to mental illness. It did so by clarifying the standards applicable to all persons suffering from mental illness; it thereby reaffirmed but did not change existing law. It authorized the Attorney General to initiate commitment proceedings in the interest of public safety by obtaining a psychiatric examination, thereby codifying existing common-law powers of the AG. Finally, it clearly intended that the law apply retroactively to released convicted sexual offenders.

1. In 1994, the Legislature amended the 1987 civil commitment statute. The amendments added language clarifying the definition of mental illness and explicitly authorized the AG to participate in involuntary commitment proceedings. The 1994 amendments reflect the legislative intent to codify the AG's parens patriae powers and explicitly provide for the exercise of those powers. (pp. 7-15)

2. The authority of the State to effect involuntary commitment is derived from the police power and the parens patriae power. Under the parens patriae theory, the State has the power to protect those persons within the State who cannot protect themselves because of an innate legal disability, such as mental illness. Because of the liberty interests at stake, civil commitment procedures must comply with due process and the State's parens patriae authority must comply with procedural and substantive due process. (pp. 15-19)

3. The Legislature plainly stated that the 1994 amendments were designed to clarify the existing standards as well as the AG's authority to initiate civil commitment proceedings. The Legislature intended the authority that it conferred on the AG to be applied retroactively. The amendments were intended not only to validate the AG's exercise of authority through its retroactive application, but also to recognize the validity of the actions taken. (pp.19-27)

4. Whether the procedures undertaken to commit D.C. were sufficiently protective of D.C.'s liberty interests implicates concerns of both substantive and procedural due process. The statutory standard to establish that a person is "in need of voluntary commitment" under the civil commitment statute as amended satisfies substantive due process. Because the amendment clarifies the definition of mental illness and does not change the law, the retroactive application of the 1994 amendments to the definition of mental illness does not offend substantive due process. Moreover, D.C. was afforded full procedural due process protection through the proceedings that led to his involuntary commitment. D.C. was afforded notice, the opportunity to challenge the sufficiency of the application, adequate prehearing examinations, full hearings, representation of counsel, and the opportunity to present evidence and confront witnesses through cross-examination. Finally, the commitment proceedings and the retroactive application of the 1994 amendment did not subject D.C. to a manifest inJustice. (pp. 27-31)

5. The findings of all the physicians testifying provide clear and convincing evidence of D.C.'s dangerousness caused by his mental illness. Thus, the trial court's determinations, initially to compel D.C. to undergo psychiatric evaluation, and later for continued treatment, were adequately supported by the record.

(pp. 31-35)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

HANDLER, J.

This appeal arises from the involuntary civil commitment of D.C. After pleading guilty to sexual assault, kidnapping, and weapon possession charges, D.C. was convicted and sentenced to the Avenel Diagnostic and Treatment Center. Finding D.C. was not mentally ill under the statute authorizing involuntary commitment and not committable, the prison medical staff authorized his release.

D.C. was thereafter subjected to surveillance by local law enforcement authorities in the community. On learning of the reported results of that monitoring, the Attorney General sought and obtained court authorization to compel D.C. to submit to psychiatric evaluations to determine whether he should be required to undergo civil involuntary commitment proceedings.

Thereafter, following a hearing, the court found D.C. to be suffering from "mental illness" and "dangerousness" and ordered him temporarily confined to Bergen Pines Community Hospital to undergo psychiatric examination. Subsequent commitment proceedings resulted in the continuing involuntary commitment of D.C. to a state mental hospital.

It is not disputed that the proceeding that resulted in D.C.'s initial temporary involuntary confinement at the request of the Attorney General for purposes of being subjected to a psychiatric examination did not comply with the statutory procedural requirements governing the involuntary commitment of mentally ill persons and was not expressly authorized by any statute or rule of court.

This appeal challenges the constitutional and statutory validity of D.C.'s involuntary commitment and, particularly, the authority of the Attorney General to initiate and participate in commitment proceedings.

I

On July 12, 1980, D.C. abducted a young woman, took her to a wooded area, tied her to a tree, and gagged her. He retrieved a "torture kit," which included medical instruments, rope, and a pick ax, and proceeded to torture and rape his victim. D.C. stated that he spared the victim's life when he saw blood coming from her rectum. D.C. turned himself in to authorities and pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, and possession of a knife. He was sentenced to the Avenel Diagnostic and Treatment Center (ADTC or Avenel) for two concurrent twenty-year terms with a ten-year period of parole ineligibility.

At ADTC, D.C. was placed in therapy; tests indicated that he was unable to control his thoughts or behavior and had inadequate control over his impulses. Dr. Kay Jackson, a staff psychologist at Avenel, began treating D.C. in January 1992. D.C. reported to Jackson that he continued to have violent sexual fantasies and if released would commit the same kind of crime he committed in the past. He stated that he considered himself a "failed rapist because his victims are alive" and that he would "attempt to kill the next victim."

Jackson found that D.C.'s condition had remained unchanged. In April 1992 and November 1992, she asked psychiatrists at ADTC to examine D.C. for possible involuntary civil commitment. The doctors agreed with Jackson that D.C. was potentially dangerous and would commit a sexual offense again, but concluded he was not eligible for involuntary commitment because he was not "openly psychotic."

D.C. was released from Avenel on November 17, 1992, after serving twelve years. After his release, Dr. Jackson contacted law enforcement authorities of Wyckoff Township, the Bergen County community where he intended to resume residence, to warn them that in her opinion D.C. was dangerous and presented a harm to the public. Jackson also spoke with the Bergen County Prosecutor.

Shortly after his release from Avenel, D.C. voluntarily submitted to an evaluation by Dr. Joel Fetterbush, a psychiatrist for the Mid-Bergen Mental Health Center, Inc., the screening service located at Bergen Pines Hospital. He found D.C. not mentally ill.

The Wyckoff Police and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office conducted a close surveillance of D.C. They observed D.C., who knew he was under surveillance, engaging in various types of peculiar behavior. Members of the surveillance teams explained that D.C. would tell them that he was a rapist and always will be, likening his condition to that of an alcoholic; he expressed continued interest in younger girls, saying they understand him better. D.C. admitted to them that he wanted to contact the victim of the 1980 assault to "see if she [was] okay." The surveilling officers also noted that D.C. would at times shout profanities and threatening remarks. D.C. also attempted to explain his strange conduct to the officers.

The Attorney General investigated the circumstances surrounding D.C.'s release from Avenel. She concluded that ADTC's staff had applied an incorrect standard in authorizing D.C.'s release. (She apparently was also denied access to the psychiatric records of the Bergen County screening service, and therefore believed that evaluation could not be relied on.) The Attorney General obtained an order to show cause from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, seeking a psychiatric examination of D.C. to determine whether involuntary commitment ...


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