Protecting the Rights of Persons with Mental Health Issues

In 2006, many of our clients who were determined to be mentally incompetent were being warehoused for months under barbaric conditions in the psychiatric ward of the Miami-Dade County Jail. Although state law requires transfer to a forensic hospital within 15 days after a determination of incompetency, the state was refusing to comply, citing a lack of money or available beds.

We filed more than 30 mandamus petitions on behalf of these clients, supported by affidavits from our expert witnesses which established that the state’s refusal to hospitalize our mentally ill clients was causing them to further deteriorate, and that these practices violated international law regarding the treatment of sick detainees. In Hadi v. Cordero, 955 So. 2d 17 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006), the court ultimately held that, notwithstanding the state’s claim of inability to comply with its statutory duty to treat our clients, it was required to do so under state law. Working with a new, more cooperative governor’s office, we were able to more promptly remedy this situation. The state legislature in special session approved $50 million for additional forensic beds. Our mentally ill clients are now being transferred to forensic hospitals within the statutory time limits.

We protect the rights of mentally ill clients before and after they are incarcerated. In Brown v. Kearney, 778 So. 2d 541 (Fla. 3d DCA 2001), the appellate court held that a trial court cannot order involuntary hospitalization for a defendant awaiting trial who does not meet the criteria for commitment, and that it must explore less restrictive mental health treatment alternatives. Our appeal in E.F. v. State, 889 So. 2d 135 (Fla. 3d DCA 2004), applied the standard of “clear and convincing evidence” before a person in state prison can be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

This office’s work on behalf of its mentally ill clients continues even when clients are found not guilty by reason of insanity or when charges are dismissed. In Johnson v. Feder, 485 So. 2d 409 (Fla. 1986), Johnson was found not guilty by reason of insanity on two separate murder charges. A few years later, he sought a hearing to challenge his involuntary hospitalization. The trial court denied a hearing because hospital medical staff recommended continuing hospitalization. The Florida Supreme Court held that Johnson had a right under Florida’s statutes and rules of criminal procedure to a judicial hearing, regardless of the recommendation of hospital medical staff.

Conversely, when criminal charges are dismissed due to the unlikeliness that a defendant will regain mental competency, we have successfully argued that the decision whether to release our former clients rested exclusively with the hospital since there were no pending criminal charges. State v. Heidrick, 707 So. 2d 1165 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998) (en banc).

We continue to represent our clients even after their cases are dismissed to ensure that they are no longer treated as criminals. We represented a man who has been mentally retarded since he contracted meningitis shortly after his birth. He was charged with a crime stemming from a fight over allowance money in a group home. Because of his mental condition, he could never be brought to trial. After the statutorily-prescribed length of time, the criminal charges were dismissed, but he nevertheless remained in a state institution.

Although the narrow issue in Everette v. Florida Dept. Of Children and Families, 961 So. 2d 270 (Fla. 2007), dealt with who would pay to transport our client, the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged that the greater issue involved whether a person would be treated as though he or she still had criminal charges pending long after all criminal charges were dismissed. The Supreme Court of Florida agreed with our position that our client could not continue to be treated like a criminal once all charges were dismissed.

We also represents mentally ill people on appeal. We represented a man diagnosed with schizophrenia, organic brain damage, and mental retardation who had pled guilty to a crime. He was later sentenced to life in prison for returning home 30 minutes late while on community control. The appellate court invoked the rarely used “manifest injustice” doctrine to grant habeas relief, requiring that our client be resentenced to no more than the seventeen-year cap in his original plea agreement. Adams v. State, 957 So. 2d 1183 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).