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Judge's View: How the civil commitment process works

In the court system, we often deal with people suffering from mental illness or chemical dependency. Sometimes, their condition is serious enough to warrant taking away the person's liberty via court order. That process is called civil commitment.

The commitment process is often initiated by family or law enforcement out of concern for the person's welfare. Police can take a person into custody and transport them to an appropriate medical facility if the officer believes the person is mentally ill, chemically dependent or developmentally disabled, and is in danger of self-harm or harming others. The person may be held at a treatment facility for up to 72 hours, not counting weekends and holidays. They must be examined by a physician within 48 hours of admission.

Once the person is admitted, the local social services agency performs a preliminary investigation known as a "pre-petition screening." This involves an interview with the person, gathering law enforcement and medical reports, talking to medical personnel and any other relevant information. If civil commitment is recommended, that package is forwarded to the County Attorney for action.

The commitment petition itself is a fairly concise document filed with the court, although the pre-petition screening report, which can be quite lengthy, is usually filed along with it. There must also be a physician's statement in support of the commitment, from a medical professional who has examined the person within the last 15 days. Once the petition is filed, the court will appoint an attorney for the person, and set the matter for a hearing.

There are typically two court hearings in connection with a commitment. The first hearing is for a judge to determine whether there is probable cause to continue holding the person. Those tend to be fairly short, and often the parties rest on the written reports. The probable cause hearing must be held within that 72-hour period. If the court finds probable cause, then the matter is set for a formal commitment hearing, which must be held within 14 days of the date the petition was filed.

At the commitment hearing, the parties will often present testimony of doctors, social workers, family members and others who know the person. The medical records are usually offered as well. The person has the right to testify, but does not have to. The parties may suggest a particular treatment facility, depending on the person's needs. In Duluth, these hearings are held at the hospital rather than transporting the person to the courthouse. The judge will usually take the matter under advisement, but issue a decision later the same day.

To order a civil commitment, the judge must be convinced by "clear and convincing" evidence that the person is mentally ill, chemically dependent or developmentally disabled, and that no less restrictive options would be sufficient. If the judge makes those findings, the person can be civilly committed for up to six months.

Many of these cases do settle before the hearing. Often, the person stabilizes after the first few days of care and medication, and realizes that they need help in addressing their mental health. The parties then work together to find the best course of treatment, and the judge formalizes that agreement in the final order. The overriding goal is safety of the person and the public.