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Involuntary Commitment Process for Defendants Found Not Competent to Stand Trial Is Civil in Nature

Does Not Invoke Constitutional Rights Applicable to Criminal Prosecution

2008-2424.  State v. Williams, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-2453.
Montgomery App. No. 22532, 179 Ohio App.3d 584, 2008-Ohio-6245.  Judgment of the trial court reversed, and judgment of the trial court reinstated.
Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer and Lanzinger, JJ., dissent.
Brown, C.J., not participating.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-2453.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(June 8, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that the involuntary commitment of a criminal defendant who is charged with a violent first or second-degree felony and who remains mentally incompetent to stand trial beyond the one-year statutory time frame for restoring competency does not violate that person’s constitutional rights to due process or equal protection. The Court held further that, because the commitment process set forth in R.C. 2945.39 is civil in nature, the state is not required to afford a person committed to a mental health facility under that statute the same constitutional rights afforded to a defendant in a criminal prosecution.

The Court’s 4-2 majority opinion, which reversed a decision of the 2nd District Court of Appeals, was authored by Justice Robert R. Cupp.

Under Ohio R.C. 2945.39, when a mentally ill person has been indicted for a violent felony but found incompetent to stand trial, and a common pleas court finds that after one year of treatment there is no substantial probability the defendant can be restored to competence in the foreseeable future, the trial court may retain jurisdiction and involuntarily commit the accused to a psychiatric hospital if the state establishes the criteria set forth in R.C. 2945.39(A)(2).

This case involved Thonex Williams of Dayton, who was charged with rape (a first-degree felony) and other offenses in December 2005.  Williams entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and underwent a mental-health evaluation. A judge of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas determined, consistent with the report of the mental-health examiner, that Williams was incompetent to stand trial and that there was a substantial probability that he could be restored to competency within the one-year time period prescribed by R.C. 2945.38. The trial court committed Williams to Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare for restorative treatment.

As the one-year time limit for restoration of competency approached, a mental-health-examination report indicated that Williams remained incompetent to stand trial and opined that he could not be restored to competency within the statute of limitations for prosecuting the most serious charge in his indictment, rape. The state then orally moved at a hearing for the trial court to retain jurisdiction under R.C. 2945.39(A)(2). Williams moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the trial court’s exercise of continuing jurisdiction pursuant to R.C. 2945.39 would deprive him of his rights to due process and equal protection. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and held that R.C. 2945.39 is constitutional. The trial court subsequently held a hearing under R.C. 2945.39(A)(2) to decide whether to retain jurisdiction. The trial court found by clear and convincing evidence the required statutory elements that (1) Williams committed the offense of rape with which he was charged, (2) he was a mentally ill person subject to hospitalization by court order, (3) he was not competent to stand trial, and (4) the statutory time limit for restoration treatment had expired. The court rejected Williams’ arguments that the matter belonged in probate court for a commitment under R.C. Chapter 5122. The trial court retained jurisdiction subject to R.C. 2945.401 and 2945.402 and ordered Williams to remain hospitalized at Twin Valley.

Williams appealed.  In a 2-1 decision, the 2nd District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and found the commitment process prescribed under R.C. 2945.39 to be unconstitutional on three different bases. 

First, the majority held that an involuntary commitment under that statute is “criminal, not civil in nature” and that Williams’ constitutional rights were therefore violated because he had not received all the procedural safeguards in his R.C. 2945.39 commitment hearing that he should have received as a criminal defendant undergoing prosecution. Second, the appellate majority held that R.C. 2945.39 violated Williams’ right to equal protection because that statute’s procedures for committing persons under indictment for a serious felony offense do not also apply to persons who have been convicted of the same offense. Third, the appellate majority held that R.C. 2945.39 violated Williams’ right to due process because the common pleas court’s retention of jurisdiction pursuant to the criminal indictment, and the potential continuation of his commitment for the maximum term that he could have received for the most serious crime for which he was indicted, are not reasonably related to the purpose of commitment, which is to protect society from dangerous persons who are mentally ill.

The state sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 2nd District’s decision. Writing for the majority in today’s decision, Justice Cupp examined and rejected each of constitutional infirmities found by the court of appeals.

With regard to the civil or criminal nature of Williams’ commitment proceedings, Justice Cupp wrote: “Our consideration of R.C. 2945.39 and related statutes leads us away from the view that the commitment of an incompetent defendant under R.C. 2945.39 is the functional equivalent of criminally confining the defendant.  Nor do we see any indication of an overriding intent to punish or confine criminal defendants within the statutory framework. Rather, we view R.C. 2945.39 and related statutes as designed primarily for the purpose of protecting the public.  In particular, we note that R.C. 2945.39(D)(1), which requires the trial court to order the least-restrictive commitment alternative available consistent with public safety and the defendant’s welfare ...  explicitly states the court ‘shall give preference to protecting public safety.’  This statement gives voice to the predominant intent underlying R.C. 2945.39.

“ ... Moreover, R.C. 2945.39 ... does not require a finding of scienter (intentional wrongdoing), nor does it implicate retribution or deterrence, which are the primary objectives of criminal punishment and the two most telling factors that a particular statute is criminal in nature. ... R.C. 2945.39 does not implicate retribution, because it does not affix culpability for prior criminal conduct. ... We conclude that R.C. 2945.39 is a civil statute. Consequently, a person committed under the statute need not be afforded the constitutional rights afforded to a defendant in a criminal prosecution.”

In also rejecting the 2nd District’s finding that the involuntary commitment scheme prescribed by R.C. 2945.39 violates defendants’ due process rights, Justice Cupp wrote: “The appellate court’s conclusions appear to be based on a belief that the statute’s primary goals are to punish the defendant and restore his competency to stand trial. However, as discussed in our analysis above, R.C. 2945.39 is a civil statute with a primary goal of protecting the public. It is of great significance to our due-process inquiry that R.C. 2945.39(D)(1) requires the court to order the least-restrictive commitment alternative available consistent with public safety and the defendant’s welfare, while also emphasizing that the court ‘shall give preference to protecting public safety.’ It is apparent that a person committed under R.C. 2945.39 is not committed ‘solely’ on account of his incapacity to proceed to trial … Rather, such a person is committed only after being found by clear and convincing evidence to be mentally ill and subject to hospitalization by court order under R.C. 5122.01(B) … and being found to be a danger to the public because he was determined to have committed the offense with which he was charged.”

“The state asserts that (the Supreme Court of Ohio’s decision in State v.) Sullivan does not support appellee’s argument that his due-process rights were violated here. The purpose of the commitment in Sullivan, which involved the former version of R.C. 2945.38, was to restore the defendant to competency in order to stand trial. Because there was no probability that competency could be restored within the time set by the former statute, the mandatory treatment period bore no rational relationship to the purpose of commitment, and, therefore, the defendant’s due-process rights were violated … Our limited decision in Sullivan, however, has no application to this case, which involves the distinctly different procedures of R.C. 2945.39. The overriding purpose of this statute is to protect the public from a person who is dangerously mentally ill, has perpetrated felonious conduct, and cannot presently be tried because of his mental incompetency.”

“Thus, we conclude that R.C. 2945.39 and 2945.401 do not violate a defendant’s due-process rights by allowing the indictment to remain intact, by allowing continued efforts to restore the defendant to competency, or by permitting a defendant to be committed for a term equal to the maximum term of imprisonment that he could receive for the most serious offense charged. … For the reasons expressed herein, we conclude that the nature and duration of the commitment that occurs under R.C. 2945.39 bear a reasonable relationship to the purpose for which the person is committed … We hold that an involuntary commitment under R.C. 2945.39 does not violate principles of due process.”

Justice Cupp’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor and Terrence O’Donnell.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger entered a dissent, joined by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, stating that in her view R.C. 2945.39 is a criminal rather than a civil statute. In support of that conclusion, Justice Lanzinger wrote: “First, the General Assembly enacted R.C. 2945.39 as part of Ohio’s criminal code. Ohio already has a civil commitment process pursuant to R.C. Chapter 5122 regarding those who are mentally ill and R.C. Chapter 5123 regarding those who are developmentally disabled. Second, tying the length of a criminal defendant’s commitment to the maximum possible prison term for the most serious offense also indicates that the commitment is criminal in nature … Finally, unlike a person committed under the civil process, a defendant who is committed under R.C. 2945.39 remains under a pending indictment. The proceeding occurs as part of the defendant’s criminal case and, therefore, the defendant should be afforded all the rights of a criminal defendant.”

Chief Justice Eric Brown did not participate in the Court’s deliberations or decision in this case.

Carley J. Ingram, 937.225.5757, for the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office.

Anthony Comunale, 937.227.3310, for Thonex Williams.

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