IN THE MATTER OF THE CIVIL COMMITMENT OF C.M. IN THE MATTER OF THE CIVIL COMMITMENT OF M.H. IN THE MATTER OF THE CIVIL COMMITMENT OF C.R.
April 2, 2019
appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Camden County, Docket Nos. CASC-561-18 and CASC-426-18; and
Salem County, Docket No. SACC-168-18.
DeNero, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause
for appellant C.M. (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender,
attorney; Amy B. DeNero and Purificacion V. Flores, Assistant
Deputy Public Defender, on the brief).
Purificacion V. Flores, Assistant Deputy Public Defender,
argued the cause for appellant M.H. (Joseph E. Krakora,
Public Defender, attorney; Amy B. DeNero, Assistant Deputy
Public Defender, and Purificacion V. Flores, on the brief).
Lorraine Hunter Hoilien, Deputy Public Defender, argued the
cause for appellant C.R. (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender,
attorney; Lorraine Hunter Hoilien, on the brief).
Respondent State of New Jersey has not filed a brief.
Judges Fisher, Hoffman and Geiger.
the important liberty interests that were at stake - and
likely infringed - in these matters, we conclude the trial
judge erred in refusing to vacate commitment orders solely
because appellants had already been released from
confinement. The existence of an unlawful commitment order is
a matter of public importance and, in light of the
circumstances asserted, capable of recurring; yet - if the
judge's rationale for refusing to examine the legitimacy
of the commitment orders is acceptable - an aggrieved
individual's ability to challenge an unlawful commitment
would repeatedly evade review. Even if there was available,
as seems likely, no concrete remedy - other than an order
declaring the wrong done - and even if, for that reason, the
dispute was technically moot, we conclude the judge still
should have ruled on the merits of appellants' motions to
vacate. And, so, we vacate the orders under review and remand
for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.
start with a recognition that bedrock liberty interests are
threatened whenever the State seeks an involuntary
commitment. That threat obligates the State to provide
sufficient procedures and limits to prevent liberty
restraints disproportionate to the undertaking. See
Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 425 (1979) (declaring
that "commitment for any purpose constitutes a
significant deprivation of liberty that requires due process
protection"); In re S.L., 94 N.J. 128, 137
(1983) (recognizing that "because commitment effects a
great restraint on individual liberty, th[e] power of the
State is constitutionally bounded"). To be sure, the
individual's "deprivation of liberty" must be
balanced against the public interest in "the need for
safety and treatment" of the individual and others, but
the weighing of those interests presupposes a need for strict
adherence to the "clear standards and procedural
safeguards that ensure that only those persons who are
dangerous to themselves, others or property, are
involuntarily committed to treatment." N.J.S.A.
30:4-27.1(b). To vindicate those interests, it is
well-established that the existing procedural safeguards
"must be narrowly circumscribed because of the
extraordinary degree of state control it exerts over a
citizen's autonomy." S.L., 94 N.J. at 139.
these policies and interests in mind, we observe that the
process in place allows a facility to hold an individual for
twenty-four hours while a screening service "provid[es]
. . . treatment and conduct[s] [an] assessment."
N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.5(a). If - after performing an examination -
a psychiatrist finds a need for involuntary commitment, a
screening certificate must be completed. N.J.S.A.
30:4-27.5(b). The facility may then "detain" the
individual "involuntarily by referral from a screening
service without a temporary court order," but "for
no more than 72 hours from the time the screening certificate
was executed." N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.9(c); accord
N.J.A.C. 10:31-2.3(g); R. 4:74-7(b)(1). During that
seventy-two-hour period, the facility must initiate
involuntary committal court proceedings. N.J.S.A.
appellate record reveals these protections were not likely
afforded. C.M. (Carol) was admitted to the emergency room at
Virtua Hospital in West Berlin and screened the same day; a
psychiatrist, however, did not examine Carol or execute a
certificate for eight days, and a judge did not enter a
temporary order of commitment until the ninth day of
detention. M.H. (Morgan) was brought to the emergency room at
Jefferson Health Hospital in Cherry Hill and screened the day
of his arrival. Like Carol, Morgan was not examined and no
certificate was executed for nine days; a commitment order
was entered a day later. C.R. (Carl) was brought to the
emergency room at Memorial Hospital in Salem County and kept
involuntarily without a court order for six days. If these
facts are true, appellants were involuntarily detained
without a court order - and without the appointment of
counsel - for longer than the law allows.
three cases were adjudicated in a similar way, with the same
judge reaching the same result. The details vary only
slightly. Approximately a week after entry of a temporary
order of commitment, Carol filed her motion to vacate. She
was released before the motion's return date, so the
judge found the application moot and denied the motion.
Morgan, who was still confined, unsuccessfully moved at the
initial commitment hearing for a directed verdict in light of
the alleged procedural violations. Before a later review
hearing could occur, Morgan was discharged from the facility
and his motion to vacate was denied as moot. Carl objected to
commitment at an initial hearing, prompting an adjournment.
He then moved to vacate the temporary commitment order that
was denied as moot because, by then, he had been discharged.
appealing the orders denying their motions to vacate, Carol,
Morgan, and Carl separately but similarly argue that we should
insist on a disposition on the merits because, in this
setting, it is crucial - notwithstanding technical mootness -
that our courts recognize, declare, and enforce the legal