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In re Civil Commitment of C.M.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 15, 2019

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.

          Argued April 2, 2019

          On 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.

          Amy B. 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.

          Before Judges Fisher, Hoffman and Geiger.

          FISHER, P.J.A.D.

         Considering 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.

         We 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.

         With 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. 30:4-27.9(c).

         The appellate record reveals these protections were not likely afforded. C.M. (Carol[1]) 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[2] - for longer than the law allows.

         These 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.

         In appealing the orders denying their motions to vacate, Carol, Morgan, and Carl separately but similarly argue[3] 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 limitations, ...


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