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Montana Involuntary Committed Individuals May Be Restrained During Transport

The Montana Supreme Court held that Montana law does not preclude handcuffing involuntarily committed mentally ill people during transport to a state hospital. Accordingly, the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied an involuntarily committed man’s request to not be handcuffed during transport.

J.J., a 30-year-old bipolar, diabetic Montana man, was seen by a mental health crisis response team eight times in six days in May 2016. He was admitted to a hospital emergency room four times in seven days. He discharged himself from a local support program and didn’t take his medication. J.J. made repeated threats to harm himself and others. On one occasion, he told nearby police to shoot him.

During an emergency room visit, David Powell, LCSW/MHP, performed a mental health evaluation. He found that J.J. was suffering from “Bipolar 1 disorder, severe with psychosis,” noting that he was “obviously very manic,” had “pressured speech,” and had “very erratic changes in topic” when speaking, and was delusional.

At Powell’s request, prosecutors filed a petition to voluntary commit J.J. on May 17, 2016. Powell alleged that J.J. was a danger to himself and others and was unable to provide for his own basic needs or comprehend the serious consequences of failing to take his diabetes medication.

Court-appointed evaluator Adrian Utsch, LCPC/MHP, conducted an independent mental health evaluation. He concluded that J.J. was suffering from severe and chronic mental illness and that he was a danger to himself and others, and in danger of further decompensation unless he continued to receive treatment.

During a district court hearing, Utsch testified that J .J. was manic and reported hearing his father’s voice telling him to kill himself. Powell testified that J.J. posed an imminent danger to himself because of his mental disorder.

Over counsel’s objection, the district court found that J.J. was suffering from bipolar 1 disorder and that he was substantially unable to provide for his own basic health and safety needs. It then involuntarily committed J.J. to a state hospital for up to three months.

After the court announced its decision, J.J.’s attorney requested that he not be handcuffed during transport to the state hospital. “That goes above and beyond what I can order,” the court said. “I assume, Deputy Murphy, that probably for transport he does have to be restrained, doesn’t he, in the vehicle?” When Murphy replied affirmatively, J.J. protested. “I can’t change the fact you have to be restrained with handcuffs in the car,” the judge said.

The Montana Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that “Montana law does not preclude using handcuffs to transport a seriously mentally ill individual,” and “the District Court’s refusal to require that J.J. not be transported in handcuffs was not an abuse of discretion.”

The Court disagreed with J.J.’s argument that there was no reason to handcuff him during transport because he was not a threat to himself or others. “J.J.’s behavior on the day of the hearing and the ten days prior was unpredictable. The potential for serious injury or harm was high and foreseeable,” the Court found. “Handcuffing J.J. during transportation was a necessary precaution to prevent J.J. from injuring himself or harming the sheriff’s deputy or another motorist on the highway.” See: In re J.J., 2018 MT 184, _ P3d _ (MT 2018).

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Related legal case

In the Matter of J.J.