Back

Conservatees are similarly situated with not guilty by reason of insanity involuntary commitments for the purposes of the right against compelled testimony

California

,

United States

In re Conservatorship of Eric B., S261812 (Cal. April 28, 2022), the appellant was the subject of a Lanterman-Petris-Short (“LPS”) petition on the ground that he was gravely disabled. The appellant requested a jury trial and objected to giving compelled testimony; however, the trial court overruled the objection. The jury found the appellant gravely disabled and the trial court appointed the Public Guardian as conservator. On appeal, the appellant challenged the order compelling his testimony.

LPS proceedings are civil in nature, but some constitutional protections from the criminal context have been extended to them

The Supreme Court of California explained that an LPS petition is a civil commitment scheme for involuntary mental health treatment without an underlying criminal defense that authorizes short-term involuntary detentions and one-year conservatorships for people who are gravely disabled due to a mental health disorder or chronic alcoholism. Some constitutional protections have been extended from the criminal context to LPS proceedings based on due process concerns.

Equal protection principles are often invoked in civil commitment cases

The Court noted that equal protection principles are often invoked in civil commitment cases to ensure that the statutory scheme applicable to a particular class of persons has not treated them unfairly in comparison with other groups with similar characteristics. The statutory right against compelled testimony in a not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGI”) extension proceeding is found in Cal. Pen. Code § 1026.5(b)(7).

LPS conservatees are similarly situated with those facing an NGI commitment extension for purposes of the right against compelled testimony

The first step in an equal protection analysis is to determine whether the two groups are similarly situated for purposes of the challenged law. The Court found that in practice, LPS conservatorships can impose substantially the same restraint on liberty as involuntary commitments connected to criminal proceedings. Thus, the Court concluded that the groups are similarly situated for the purposes of the right not to give compelled testimony.

In this case, the error was harmless, so the Court declined to remand the case to determine if the differential treatment was constitutionally justified

The Court explained that under an equal protection analysis if the groups are similarly situated, the next question is whether the disparate treatment can be justified by a constitutionally sufficient state interest. Therefore, in general, the Court would remand the case to determine that issue. However, the Court of Appeal determined that compelling the conservatee’s testimony, in this case, was harmless error because two other witnesses painted a vivid picture of someone who was unable to care for themself and the appellant did not challenge this finding.

Disposition

The Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

May 30, 2022
re Conservatorship of Eric B., S261812 (Cal. April 28, 2022)