Is it true that the police can have you committed to a mental hospital against your will?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

When the police believe that someone is on the verge of harming another person, they can charge him with making threats, attempted assault, attempted murder, or other crimes that represent movement towards violence. When it appears to the police that the suspect’s mental health is causing ominous behavior, even if the potential violence would be against the suspect himself, they have the authority to take the suspect to a mental hospital.

That authority comes not from state crimes codes, but from each state’s mental health laws, which are part of the civil code. For that reason, being taken to a mental hospital is sometimes referred to as “civil commitment.” It is also known as “involuntary commitment.” In every state there are different standards for the behavior that warrants commitment and also regarding who can commit another person and how the committed person has to be treated.[i]

Typically, the mental health codes authorize only health professionals and peace officers (police) to involuntarily commit somebody to a mental hospital. Those laws also indicate what kinds of behavior those police or health professionals have to witness in order to make the commitment and what can be done with a patient who is admitted that way. Often, the laws will have measurable ways of deciding whether to commit someone, for example: threatening suicide within the past twenty-four hours or being delusional to the point of not being able to respond to the officers in a normal way.[ii]

Laws about the hospital’s obligations for handling someone who has been involuntarily committed tend to declare how soon and how thoroughly the patient has to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. The state mental health laws also dictate how an involuntarily committed mental patient can argue against the commitment.

Those sections of law usually require that a legal hearing be convened. At the hearing, the goal is to ascertain if the legal problem, i.e. the risk of harm to self or others, will still exist if the involuntarily committed person is released from the hospital. Because this is a legal proceeding involving interpretation of statutes, state laws require that indigent mental health patients be represented by a court-appointed attorney or public defender at the commitment hearing.

Despite the existence of legal procedures intended to protect the rights of people involuntarily committed to mental institutions, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law strongly opposes those commitments.[iii] The Center’s years of legal work on behalf of the mentally ill and their observation of involuntary commitments has convinced them that the practice is only acceptable in the case of a true emergency. Recognizing that “outpatient commitment” is ordered as the result of many of those hearings that the law requires with involuntary commitments, the Bazelon Center has a long list of reasons that they oppose involuntary outpatient commitments as well.[iv]

[i] A summary of thirty-eight states’ involuntary outpatient commitment laws and definitions of the common terms used in those laws are available from the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law at The states’ basic standards for behavior that will lead to involuntary commitments are also included in that chart. To find a state’s mental health laws on your own, the best strategy is to look in the index to the state’s statutory code for topics that come under the heading of “mental health” or “health and welfare-mental” or “health and human services-mental.”

[ii] See, Linda A. Teplin, Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons, National Institute of Justice Journal, July 2000, pp.9-15. This article carefully explains how and when police decide whether to commit a suspect to a mental institution rather than arresting him. At the end are footnotes referencing government reports as well as other journal articles from the fields of psychology and sociology all of which involve issues connected with police handling of mental health patients in crisis.

[iii] The Bazelon Center’s position statement is available at The Bazelon Center’s Web site also has summaries of court cases about involuntary commitments and overviews of major scholarly research studies about outpatient mental health commitments.

[iv] Id. 


  1. hymes said

    Many states now allow commitment on the basis of inability to care for self as a result of mental illness and a few such as Illinois and now Idaho allow it for “likely to substantially deteriorate” without treatment which is a very broad criteria that could apply to anyone with a psych. history. They are not supposed to be able to commit someone simply for not having a home, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. The lawyers provided are a joke in almost all instances who don’t even meet with their “clients” until the time of the hearing.

  2. Jenna Rose said

    in my opinion the worst part of police involuntarily committing a patient to a psychiatric hospital is that the patient has no say in which psychiatric hospital they go to.

    it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it is.

  3. Ray Ing said


    do not act in a way to qualify yourself for a 72 hour psych hold

    Xmpp Texting:

    Free yourselves from the domination of COSTLY sms texting and I’ll do my best to help where I can. Xmpp is not email. OTR encryption required for privacy and security.

  4. Rayelle said

    I was homeless. My father had dementia and became abusive. And kicked me out. I had a police charge that was dropped. But the neighbors were told by police that I am a psycho killer. I only one time, defended myself when my boyfriend grabbed my wrist and mainly one night, I was mad at him for having done so in the past. But I lived with a complete total stranger who became my boyfriend, The police didn’t want me to not have a home. But they insist that I be followed and questioned of my whereabouts all the time. I just stay at the house. The legal aid lawyers offered me to go to the mental hospital. I never attacked any police or people. After two years, the police follow me out walking to the store. And they threaten to arrest me for walking. And that I’m an endangerment and could hitchhike. This is all in Arkansas, Cherokee Village

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