Is naked always obscene? What is illegal about being naked when changing clothes or bathing in outdoor public spaces?

**** 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. ****

The words obscene and obscenity generally refer to printed or electronically published materials, rather than a person’s actions. Exposure of private body parts in person is more likely to be called “public nudity” or “open lewdness” in the law.[i] No matter what it is called, being naked, or at least having genitalia uncovered, is almost always illegal when you are in a place where people would not expect to come upon the sight of someone’s private parts.[ii] This is why people wearing skimpy bathing suits on the beach don’t get in trouble, but people bathing in a park or changing clothes in an alleyway do.

Often, it is a combination of unexpected exposure along with the possibility of offending or exciting an onlooker’s sexual sensibilities that makes public nudity illegal. Indiana courts have declared for decades that their anti-nudity statute was written for the purpose of “protecting the unsuspecting and non-consenting viewer from another’s exposure.”[iii] The Michigan Court of Appeals recently stated that “the purposes of the indecent exposure statute are best fulfilled by focusing on the impact that offensive conduct might have.”[iv]

Statutes, themselves, do not always convey that onlookers have to be surprised or offended and they don’t necessarily tell what degree of nudity is illegal. Some locales have highly specific anti-nudity statutes telling exactly how much exposure is too much and others have broad statutes, leaving more interpretation up to police discretion.

Sample laws:     In Cotati, California, the municipal code says that “It is unlawful for any person over the age of ten years to willfully expose his person…in such a manner that the genitals, vulva, pubis, pubic symphysis, public hair, buttocks, natal cleft, perineum, anus, anal region or pubic hair region is exposed to public view.”[v]      

In Independence, Missouri, the indecent exposure ordinance considers it a criminal act when anyone, “knowingly exposes his/her genitals or buttocks or a female exposes her breasts or is clothed in such a manner under circumstances in which he/she knows he/she will reasonably cause alarm or embarrassment to other persons.”[vi]      

The Code in Grand Rapids, Minnesota simply says, “No person shall appear in any street, park or public place of the city in a state of nudity, in any indecent or lewd dress, or make any indecent or lewd exposure of his person.”[vii]      

Charleston, South Carolina has a similarly broad standard, “No person shall appear in any public place or on property open to the public in a state of nudity or otherwise make any indecent exposure of his or her person.”[viii]

The Code of Federal Regulations, regulating behavior in national parks, is more general in its description of what it calls disorderly conduct:  “A person commits disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public alarm, nuisance…knowingly or recklessly creating a risk thereof…engages in a display or act that is obscene.”[ix]

Defendants charged with violating the federal regulation at least have the opportunity to assert that they didn’t intend to cause a public alarm or didn’t know they were creating a risk of alarm or nuisance.  And, since the federal regulation does not specify whether nudity alone or behavior combined with nudity might be an obscene “display or act,” there is also flexibility in defending the exposure itself.

The more specific local ordinances are harder to fight in court than the general language of the federal regulation, but those local ordinances come with less of a penalty, usually a ticket.[x] In other words, if the law says, “you can’t expose this part of your body” and a police officer has seen you expose it, then there just is not much flexible interpretation available for a defense.

Sometimes, when the police realize that they are dealing with somebody who cannot pay the fine and does not have a place to get cleaned up, they will transport the accused person to a shelter or some other place where the function that was being done in public can be done in private. That way, the people complaining to the police about having encountered someone naked or partly undressed will see that the police are responding to them and the homeless person gets to do what he needs to do without having court interaction.

This type of police action might not be specified in any legal codes, but that does not make it illegal. Law enforcement officers have broad duties to protect the public and maintain peace and order. So, transporting folks to places where they can wash or get changed or sleep is something that police can do, even though it is neither something they are prohibited from doing nor something that they are required to do.


[i] When researching case law about public nudity in any books by the Thomson West publishing company, which publishes the majority of case reporters, you will find it categorized as “obscenity key 3” and “obscenity key 5”.

[ii] 67 C.J.S. Obscenity § 9 (2005).

[iii] Townsend v. State, 750 N.E.2d 416 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).

[iv] People v. Huffman, 702 N.W.2d 621 (Mich. Ct. App. 2005).

[v] Cotai, CA., Municipal Code § 9.33.020 (2005).

[vi] Independence, MN., Code of Ordinances § 12.06.006 (2005).

[vii] Grand Rapids, MN., City Code § 42.102 (2005).

[viii] Charleston, SC., City Code § 21.166 (2005).

[ix] 36 C.F.R. § 2.34(a)(2) (2007).

[x] See the blog posts about dealing with police and the courts to find out about responding to tickets when you cannot pay the fines.

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Is it possible to get out on bail if you have no money?

**** 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. ****

The purpose of bail is to assure that defendants will return to court for trial after having been formally accused of a crime at a preliminary hearing. The bail agreement between a court and a defendant establishes a defendant’s promise to pay the court a high amount of money which will then be returned to the defendant when he returns for the hearing.

A better assurance that the defendant will be present for trial is to simply keep him in jail, but that contradicts the notion that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.[i] In many states, money does not have to be posted; defendants can be released until trial “on their own recognizance.”[ii] Even in those jurisdictions though, if the court believes either that the defendant is likely to not return for trial or to pose a threat to the public, bail may be imposed to remind the defendant to behave and return for trial or else risk staying in jail until the trial.[iii]

For a homeless person, the reasons for denying him bail, such as: no money to put down as a guarantee, no community roots like a job or house, and no way to track him down are the same issues that can be argued in favor of releasing him on his own recognizance. The fact that a homeless defendant has no money with which to post bail also means that the defendant does not have money to pay for transportation out of the jurisdiction. Not having the responsibilities of a job or house would seem to leave a defendant flexible enough to abscond, but if the defendant has already been living in the jurisdiction without those roots, there is reason to believe that he has no place else to go. Similarly, the lack of an address and the defendant’s status as homeless provide even more routes by which to track him down than anyone who does have a permanent address because the homeless tend to be out in public areas and to repeatedly access particular social services sites.


[i] The presumption of innocence is described and analyzed very thoroughly in 1 Wayne R. LeFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, §1.4 part (d) “Accusatorial Burdens” (2d. Ed. Current through 2006 update.) In support of their analysis, the authors of that authoritative treatise cite to the following U.S. Supreme Court cases: Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525-26, 78 S.Ct. 1332, 1341-2 (1958); Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 98 S.Ct. 1930 (1978); Bell v. Wofish, 441 U.S. 20, 533, 99 S.Ct 1861, 1871 (1979), and Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 54, 69 S.Ct. 1347, 1350 (1949). For a detailed explanation of the constitutional right to be released on bail, see 8 CJS Bail §20. (CJS is Corpus Juris Secundum, a legal encyclopedia.)

[ii] Lynn C. Cobb, Annotation, Application of State Statutes Establishing Pretrial Release of Accused on Personal Recognizance as Presumptive Form of Release, 78 A.L.R.3d 780 (1977).

[iii] 1 Wayne R. LeFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, §1.4 Part (f) “Minimizing the Burdens of Accusation and Litigation” (2d. Ed. Current through 2006 update.); Lynn C. Cobb, Annotation, Application of State Statutes Establishing Pretrial Release of Accused on Personal Recognizance as Presumptive Form of Release, 78 A.L.R.3d 780, § 2(a) (1977).

What are some of the criminal charges commonly used against the homeless?

**** 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. ****

The criminal charges most commonly used against the homeless, in connection with their homelessness, have all been mentioned elsewhere in this blog, but we present them here for quick reference. These are merely summaries; each state or municipality will have its own precise definitions of crimes. Locate your state and local codes through http://www.justia.com/us-states/.  If your local code is not at that site, try this one http://www.spl.org/default.asp?pageID=collection_municodes.

Note that these are all minor charges, typically punished with citations rather than jail time. Since defendants only get a full trial if their crime can be punished with jail time, there is hardly any opportunity to defend against these kinds of charges.

Disorderly conduct – Fighting, making noise, or “creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition”[i] without any legitimate reason and simply for the purpose of creating trouble.

Loitering – Lingering in a place or in a way “not usual for law abiding individuals”[ii] and which creates discomfort among other people nearby.

Obstructing traffic[iii]Blocking a public path so that vehicles or pedestrians either cannot pass or can only pass in an inconvenient way.

Open lewdness[iv]Exposing private parts of one’s own body when it is expected that others will see and possibly be alarmed or offended.

Panhandling[v]Asking people in a public place to give money to you personally without promising to do anything in return. Sometimes called “begging.”

Public nuisance[vi] – Unreasonably interfering with a right common to the general public.

Trespassing[vii] – Entering private property without the owner’s permission.

Vagrancy – This is an archaic term. There was a time when being someone who wandered aimlessly could get someone charged with vagrancy. Now, vagrancy has the same meaning as loitering.


[i] Model Penal Code §250.2

[ii] Model Penal Code §250.6.

[iii] Model Penal Code §250.7

[iv] Model Penal Code §251.1

[v] Barrett A. Lee and Chad R. Farrell, Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime: Homelessness, Panhandling, and the Public, 38 URBAN AFFAIRS REV., 299 (2003).

[vi] Black’s Law Dictionary 1095 (7th Ed. 1999).

[vii] Model Penal Code §221.2

Under what circumstances might your conversations with police count as criminal confessions?

**** 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. ****

Any time someone voluntarily tells the police about his own involvement in an illegal act, it is a confession that can be used against him.[i] Telling police about tagging along with other people and watching while they committed a crime can be a confession to conspiracy. Casually talking to police can count as a confession even if the police are not asking questions about any particular crime. Admitting a crime to an officer in an undercover disguise can be a confession as well.

Notice that any of these examples could take place before or after being arrested and inside jail or out of police custody altogether. This is because the communications can be regarded as confessions whether or not police custody or arrest is involved.[ii] At least if they do take place while the confessor is under police control, there are some constitutional protections that might keep the confession from being used in a prosecution.

Almost everyone is familiar with the promise that police make on television, “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” These promises are used in real life as well. They developed from the Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona[iii] as ways of warning defendants of two constitutional rights: 1. the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate ones self[iv] and 2. The Sixth Amendment right to have assistance of counsel while defending ones self in a criminal case.[v]

Although they are stated as soon as anyone is arrested on TV, these rights have to be stated in real life only before an interrogation begins or before the police establish a situation which they know is “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”[vi] Since several decades before these warnings were required, the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment[vii] has been used to protect criminal defendants whose confessions were forced by torment, teasing, or lying; those confessions cannot be considered believable because of the way they were coerced.[viii] Confessions obtained through fair and proper (due) processes are believable.

Comforting though it may be to know that three constitutional amendments are available for analyzing confessions, criminal defendants cannot forget the timing of when these amendments are useful. First, they exist as protections before a defendant confesses. A defendant who is able to remember that he does not have to be a witness against himself, that a confession cannot be forced from him, and that he has a right to have a lawyer with him during police questioning can avoid confessing altogether.

The second time when these amendments are helpful is long after a confession has taken place. It is past when the police have stopped investigating and have turned the case over to the prosecutor, after the charges have been filed, and when the criminal trial is about to begin. It is then that the defendant’s attorney argues that information gleaned from a forced confession should not be used as evidence against the defendant.[ix] By then, the confession may have been reported in the news and influenced potential jurors. Even if it hasn’t made the news, an illegally obtained confession is inadmissible evidence.[x]


[i] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291,300, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1689 (1980); Hoffa v. U.S. 385 U.S. 293, 87 S.Ct. 408 (1966); Dickerson v. U.S., 530 U.S. 428, 120 S.Ct. 2326 (2000).

 

[ii] William E. Ringel, SEARCHES AND SEIZURES, ARRESTS AND CONFESSIONS, (West, 2007) Chapter 27 “‘Custodial Interrogation'” Requirement of Miranda.” See also Chapter 25 “Voluntariness of Confessions and Admissions.”

[iii] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602 (1966).

[iv] U.S. Constitution Amendment V, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”

[v] U.S. Constitution Amendment VI, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

[vi] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 292, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1685 (1980).

[vii] U.S. CONST. Amend. XIV “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

[viii] Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461 (1936); Ashcraft. V. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 64 S.Ct. 921 (1944).

[ix] A practical demonstration of how to make a case to keep a forced confession from being used as evidence is in 5 Am. Jur. Trials 331(1)(B), Excluding Illegally Obtained Evidence.(updated through February 2007). This source has sample questions to ask of witnesses, samples of documents to file in court, and demonstrations of how to prove various possible claims.

[x] Excluding forced confessions from evidence developed through a series of cases interpreting the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self incrimination. Here is a summary of that evolution http://supreme.lp.findlaw.com/constitution/amendment05/09.html.

Do you always have to leave a place simply because a police officer tells you to move on?

**** 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 tell homeless people to move away from where they are, it is usually an unspoken warning that if they do not move, they will be charged with a crime, perhaps the crime of trespassing if they are on private property, maybe loitering or disorderly conduct if they are on public property. Everyone, even people who are not homeless, can get charged if they fail to move away from an area when the police tell them to disperse.

In a 2011 manual titled Criminalizing Crisis, the National Law Center for Homelessness  and Poverty put forth a model order for police departments to implement as a way of instructing police about interacting with homeless people. (The model order is on page 31 of the manual.) This model order includes guidance about when homeless people can be made to “move on”.

This is not a legal issue that is unique to the homeless experience, but it impacts the homeless more than others simply because of where they spend their time. A 1983 Supreme Court case[i] ruled that statutes authorizing police to move people have to specify some sort of illegal action so that “ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”[ii]

The typical disorderly conduct law includes a line stating that when groups of three or more people block a sidewalk or cause some other disturbance, the police can require them to disperse. The exemplary language in the Model Penal Code says, “Where [three] or more persons are participating in a course of disorderly conduct likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, a peace officer or other public servant engaged in executing or enforcing the law may order the participants and others in the immediate vicinity to disperse.”[iii]

Loitering is the “move along” charge more likely to apply to individuals or pairs. The Model Penal Code version of it says:  “A person commits a violation if he loiters or prowls in a place, at a time, or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals under circumstances that warrant alarm for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity. Among the circumstances which may be considered in determining whether such alarm is warranted is the fact that the actor takes flight upon appearance of a peace officer, refuses to identify himself, or manifestly endeavors to conceal himself or any object. Unless flight by the actor or other circumstance makes it impracticable, a peace officer shall prior to any arrest for an offense under this section afford the actor an opportunity to dispel any alarm which would otherwise be warranted, by requesting him to identify himself and explain his presence and conduct.”[iv]

An authority on municipal law, writing about police regulation of sidewalks and streets, says that “the gravamen of the offense is the doing of the prohibited act, and not disobedience to the order of the officer; hence the offense does not depend upon the whim or caprice of the officer.”[v] He may be correct that the charges sound like they can only be applied based on a defendant’s conduct, but in practice it is nearly impossible to dispute a loitering or disorderly conduct charge without sounding argumentative in a way that will convince the judge that you must also have been argumentative with the officer.

Being argumentative with a police officer is enough of an action to create cause for alarm, a component of both disorderly conduct and loitering.[vi] Defending against one of these charges typically requires proof that you were not about to cause a problem.

In loitering cases, there are not likely to be any witnesses available to validate a defendant’s claim about why he was there at that time and whether he seemed threatening. In disorderly conduct cases, whether the defendant’s actions were likely to cause harm, inconvenience, or annoyance is determined by the officer’s own perception.

So the way to avoid trouble in the short-term is to move whenever the police say so, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it is. In the long-term, it can be legally helpful to keep track of patterns of when police give these move-along orders and which officers tend to give them. If it becomes clear that police simply do not want the homeless in a certain area on Friday and Saturday nights, then avoiding trouble is easy. If it becomes obvious that police are timing their move along orders to interrupt sleep or eating, then the homeless people being disrupted might be able to make a claim of police harassment.  (See the ACLU’s Community Action Manual on “Fighting Police Abuse“.

The National Coalition for the homeless maintains a website about “Criminalization of the Homeless” with summaries of court cases in which vagrancy, curfew and loitering laws have been contested. Anyone planning to argue that those kinds of laws are unjustly written or unfairly applied would be wise to read these case summaries and then look for the full case opinions and cases that reference these cases. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/crimreport/casesummaries_3.html

[i] Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352; 103 S.Ct. 1855 (1983). [ii] Id. at 357; 1858. [iii] Model Penal Code §250.1 [iv] Model Penal Code §250.6 [v] MCQUILLIN, EUGENE, A TREATISE ON THE LAW OF MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS 3d Ed., §24.596 (updated through July 2006) [vi] This point is explained in the post about having to identify one’s self to police.  See also the post about what to do if police are rough with you.

When police commit you to the mental hospital, are they entitled to information that you give to the hospital?

**** 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. ****

There is not an automatic assumption that the police are entitled to your mental health records simply because it was they who got you to the hospital. Mental health records, like all medical records, are private[i] and are only supposed to be used as evidence in a court case with the patient’s express permission. However, the USA PATRIOT Act and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) both provide legal ways for law enforcement agencies to obtain people’s medical records.

HIPAA is the law that protects the content of medical records from being used for anything other than the patient’s medical care. However that law does allow medical offices to give private medical records to courts “in response to an order of a court or administrative tribunal, provided that the covered entity discloses only the protected health information expressly authorized by such order; or (ii) In response to a subpoena, discovery request, or other lawful process, that is not accompanied by an order of a court or administrative tribunal.”[ii]

This second section, about subpoenas, specifically allows courts to get medical records directly from health providers without the patient’s permission when the subpoena has been sent to the patient’s last known address.[iii] Obviously, this means that homeless people who do not have a current address on file with their doctor’s office can find that their medical records were admitted into court without their knowledge. HIPAA also allows law enforcement officers (police and the FBI) to get medical records without a patient’s permission when investigating: the identity of a dead body that might be the patient, the identity of a fugitive, or a crime against the patient.[iv]

The USA PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to “make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities…”[v]

Medical records are specifically mentioned in a later section specifying that only the Director or Deputy Director of the FBI or the Executive Assistant Director of National Security can use this law to request a warrant for medical records.[vi]

Even though this question is about how police and prosecutors might obtain medical records to use in bringing criminal charges or proving someone’s guilt in a crime, this is a good place to mention how and when medical records might be used in a civil case in which a homeless person might be suing for a breach of contract or some consumer right. There is no need to worry about the possibility that a civil court opponent will be able to claim “he didn’t pay the rent because he’s crazy” “he’s accusing me of negligence because he’s depressed” or anything like that. There are two protections that keep that kind of remark from getting into court documents or testimony.

First of all, the evidence rules require that only relevant information be presented in a case.[vii] Medical records are relevant in disability claims and medical malpractice claims. In those cases, the medical records are offered as evidence by the patient not the opponent in the case. They are not used to support an accusation against a sick person; they are presented as proof of the patient’s own claim for his rights. In cases about not paying debts or not fulfilling a duty, the health of neither the debtor nor the creditor has anything to do with whether a legal right was violated. The medical records would be irrelevant in relation to those types of legal controversies.

Privacy is the second legal protection against having medical records used as evidence. The medical community has a serious professional obligation to keep those records secret. The few court-related exceptions to that obligation involve limited police investigations, as described in the previous section. As a professional obligation, the rule about privacy in patient records comes not only from the law,[viii] but also from the canons of professional ethics for medical professionals. A doctor or nurse or other licensed medical professional who releases patient information despite the ethics rules can lose his license to practice in that profession.[ix] If you believe this has happened to you, contact your state’s professional licensure office for a complaint form.[x]


[i] On its Web site http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides thorough and clear information about the legal obligation to keep medical records private. That site has the full-text of the HIPAA statute enacted by Congress as well as the Health and Human Services regulations detailing how that statute is to be carried out. The site also has questions and answers in plain English and a complaint form that patients can file with the Department if HHS if a doctor’s office releases medical records in violation of the law.

[ii] 45 C.F.R. §164.512(e)(updated through August 2006).

[iii] Id. at § 164.512(e)(iii)(1)(a).

[iv] 45 CFR §164.512(f) (updated through August 2006). This can be a way of assuring that scientific evidence is collected and preserved for trial. A comparable situation has been in state laws for many years allowing hospital emergency rooms to collect hair and fluid samples from rape victims and give them immediately and directly to police investigating the rape.

[v] 50 USC § 1861(a)(1) (as of August 2006).

[vi] Id. at § 1861(a)(3).

[vii] Rule 402 of the Federal Rules of Evidence states that, “All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these rules, or by other rules prescribed by the supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.” State court systems have their own rules of evidence; all of them model their rule about relevance closely to the federal rule.

[viii] As noted several footnotes ago, the HIPAA statute written by Congress and the regulations written by the Department of Health and Human Services about keeping medical records private are all available for free on the Internet at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/ along with frequently asked questions, clear fact sheets, and a complaint form to file with HHS if a doctor’s office improperly reveals medical record content.

[ix] The American Medical Association has the Principles of Medical Ethics online at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/2498.html. Principle IV is about patient privacy. The American Nursing Association has the nurses’ Code of Ethics at http://www.nursingworld.org/ethics/ecode.htm. A particular hospital’s code of ethics will usually be available from its patient relations or quality control office. The American Hospital Association has explanatory issues pages, including HIPAA as an issue, at http://www.aha.org/aha/issues/index.html.

[x] Professional licenses might be granted by any number of agencies or departments in each state. Look for “medical licensing” in your state government’s home page http://www.state.al.us/ (substitute your state’s two initials for AL) or ask a librarian how to file a licensure complaint against a particular type of professional in your state.

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 for evaluation and possible commitment.

That authority to admit someone to a mental hospital 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 admitted to a mental hospital without choosing to be admitted there 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 to involuntarily commit somebody to a mental hospital. Those laws also indicate what kinds of behavior those 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 or a privately hired lawyer 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] The treatment advocacy keeps track of state commitment laws. http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/browse-by-state 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 take 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 http://www.bazelon.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=BG1RhO3i3rI%3d&tabid=324. 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. 

The Council of State Governments Justice Center creates and compiles a lot of authoritative information about police interactions with people who have mental illness.