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Errors lead to reversal of veteran’s involuntary commitment

November 23, 2016

A trial court’s order mandating the involuntary commitment of a veteran has been vacated after the Indiana Court of Appeals found that the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to follow proper legal protocol in serving documents and did not prove that the veteran posed a risk to himself or others.

M.E., an army veteran living in Marion, has a well-established diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. In March 2016, Police officers brought M.E. to the Veterans Affairs hospital, and in April, the Department of Veterans Affairs Northern Indiana Health Care System filed an application for emergency detention with the Grant Circuit Court, which granted the application the same day.

Shortly thereafter, the NIHCS filed a petition for regular commitment with a physician’s statement attached, but those documents were not served to M.E. or his counsel. The trial court issued a commitment hearing order April 7, scheduled a hearing for April 12, a notice of rights and procedures and a mental illness summons. Also on April 7, M.E. signed a waiver of right to be present at his commitment hearing.

However, M.E.’s counsel did not learn of the documents until a day later when the VA’s counsel called him, so counsel had to request that the documents filed with the court be sent to him, and the hearing was continued to April 20.

At the hearing, Dr. Masood Kahn, a staff inpatient psychiatrist at the hospital, testified that M.E. had a history of hallucinations, had been admitted to the acute mental health unit at least 31 other times and had been physically restrained in the past. But M.E. testified that he did not know why he had been taken to the hospital and also said he was capable of paying his rent and taking care of himself, despite his mental constraints. Regardless, the court issued an order of regular commitment finding him to be mentally ill, dangerous and gravely disabled, so M.E. appealed.

In the case of In the Matter of the Commitment of M.E. v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 27A02-1605-MH-987, M.E. argued that the VA failed to serve him with the documents it filed with the trial court, that the waiver he signed was invalid and that the involuntary commitment was not warranted because the V.A. failed to establish that he exhibited a grave disability or dangerousness to himself.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday, writing that a proof of service is required for all civil commitment cases, and the fact that M.E. appeared at the hearing with counsel is insufficient to prove service.

“Indeed, the individual and his counsel may have learned of the hearing through purely serendipitous circumstances, which is precisely what occurred in the present case,” the appellate court wrote.

Further, the court wrote that M.E.’s waiver was invalid because “any waiver presented to and signed by an individual who has been involuntarily detained, and is alleged by the VA to be mentally ill, cannot be valid.”

Finally, the appellate court wrote that because Dr. Khan had testified in court that it had been three years since M.E. had been physically restrained and that he had provided no facts as to how M.E. may be dangerous, the doctor had not proven that M.E.’s behavior constitutes a substantial risk that he would harm himself or others. Additionally, the Court of Appeals agreed with M.E. that there was no clear and convincing evidence to establish a grave disability.
 

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