COA: Mentally ill man should’ve been denied pro se request

A mentally ill man who was committed after acting pro se has secured a reversal by the Court of Appeals of Indiana, as the appellate court determined he was not competent enough to waive his right to counsel.

After experiencing “worsening, intensifying voices” and “wanting to escape the torture,” L.B. threw his television out a window, shaved his head and burned down his house.

Police found L.B. on foot in a neighboring county, and a few days later he was admitted to the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center where it was determined he was mentally ill, dangerous and in need of immediate restraint.

The hospital then filed for a petition for L.B. for regular commitment. L.B. was previously the subject of a commitment in a preceding case.

The trial court appointed counsel for L.B., and the two briefly spoke the day before the commitment hearing. When the hearing commenced the following day, L.B.’s counsel advised the court L.B. wanted to represent himself.

After a brief exchange between L.B. and Marion Superior Court Judge Steven R. Eichholtz, the hearing proceeded with L.B. acting pro se.

In the end, the trial court found L.B. to be a danger to himself and others, gravely disabled and in need of continuing care and custody. L.B. was then ordered to regular commitment to the hospital with a periodic report due no later than December 1, 2022.

On appeal, L.B. challenged his commitment on due process grounds, arguing that the trial court erred in accepting his waiver of the right to counsel without first finding that he was competent to waive that right.

The COA agreed and reversed in In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of: L.B. v. Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 22A-MH-153, on Friday.

“Here, the Hospital’s petition for L.B.’s regular commitment alleged him to be ‘psychotic’ and experiencing ‘command auditory hallucinations,’” Judge Leanna Weissman wrote. “The petition described this as ‘[a] substantial impairment or obvious deterioration in judgment, reasoning, or behavior that results in [L.B.’s] inability to function independently.’ Yet during its waiver colloquy with L.B., the trial court asked only a single question that can be construed as an inquiry into his mental competency. And L.B.’s ‘war crime torture’ response did little to resolve the issue.

“Because the trial court did not establish that L.B. was capable of knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waiving the right to counsel before accepting his waiver of that right, L.B. was denied due process,” the opinion concluded.

Thus, judges ordered remand for a new commitment hearing.

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