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What Happened to James Chasse: Alleged Mentally Ill Person At Risk Of Being “Beaten To Death” By Cops, Said Commitment Court

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Alleged Mentally Ill Person At Risk Of Being “Beaten To Death” By Cops, Said Commitment Court

From the Portland Mercury

Multnomah County’s commitment court ruled two years ago an alleged mentally ill person should be locked in a psychiatric hospital because there was a risk she might be “beaten to death” by cops like James Chasse, if she were left to wander the streets, it was revealed yesterday.

The appeals court yesterday overturned the woman’s involuntary commitment, saying the conclusion that she “was a danger to herself because some officer, at some unknown point in the future, might kill or harm her is unduly speculative and does not establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that appellant is a danger to herself.”

The woman had fought with police when she was originally taken into custody on a mental health hold. So the commitment court said that “fighting with police…is certainly something that puts mentally ill people at risk of death or serious physical injury,” according to the appeals court verdict.

“The court commented on the then-recent death of James Chasse, stating that Chasse, an unarmed mentally ill person, “was confronted by police, and he was beaten to death.”,” the appeals court verdict continues.

Nevertheless, that’s not her fault, according to the appeals court.

It’s significant that the commitment court took “absolute judicial notice” of the fact that “fighting with the police” is “certainly something that puts mentally ill people at risk of death or serious physical injury,” because in legal terms, a judge would only take judicial notice of a fact when it is obvious and undisputed.

For example, a judge might take judicial notice of the fact that the Mercury is an alternative weekly newspaper, or of the fact that the sun set yesterday just after 7 pm. For a judge to take “absolute judicial notice” of the fact that mentally ill people are at risk of being beaten to death by police is a strong position.

Usually, a person is ruled a danger to themselves or others because of, for example: repeated suicide attempts, or thinking bleach is a magic drink sent from heaven, or for carrying a knife around and believing they are on a divine quest, or believing they are impervious to gunfire. Simply having a tendency to fight with police isn't sufficient, says the appeals court. You can read more about the commitment process here.

The appeals court verdict is unlikely to help the person who was committed, however. She has already spent up to 180 days in the psychiatric hospital, and has no legal recourse. 23 commitments in Multnomah County have been overturned by the appeals court since December 2006, either because the Commitment Court had insufficient evidence to commit the person, or simply because procedures weren't followed. In one case, a commitment was overturned because it was held "in the hallway of a hospital while appellant was naked in a hospital room, in the midst of a medical crisis, and unable to hear or participate meaningfully in the entire proceeding."

Critics of the system say civil commitment should not be used as a dumping ground for a failed public safety or mental health system. They argue that you can't just lock people up because society doesn't want to take care of them, or because it doesn't know how to.