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Wisconsin Supreme Court Reverses “Dangerousness” Finding in Involuntary Commitment of Schizophrenic Man

D.J.W. was subjected to a January 30, 2017 commitment order from the Langlade County Circuit Court to the custody of the County for six months. The court also ordered involuntary psychotropic medication and treatment. The County sought recommitment for one year as the expiration of the initial commitment period approached. Dr. John T. Coates was appointed to examine D.J.W. He and D.J.W were the only witnesses at the hearing.

The Circuit Court determined that D.J.W. was a danger to himself and was incapable of making an informed choice to accept or refuse medication. It granted recommitment and involuntary medication for one year. D.J.W. appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed, concluding the finding of D.J.W.’s dangerousness “was not clearly erroneous.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court granted D.J.W.’s petition for review.

In Wisconsin, involuntary commitment is regulated by Wis. Stat. § 51.20. It requires three elements be fulfilled: the individual must be (1) mentally ill; (2) a proper subject for treatment; and (3) dangerous to themselves or others.

In an initial commitment proceeding, there are five different means to demonstrate a person is dangerous. A recommitment proceeding requires proof of these elements. While the standard is a bit relaxed because the subject’s behavior may be altered due to treatment, “each extension hearing requires proof of current dangerousness.”

At the initial hearing, it was determined that D.J.W. was a danger to himself because he could not “satisfy his basic needs for nourishment, shelter, or safety without prompt and adequate treatment.” On appeal of the recommitment order, there were conflicting messages from the county and court of appeals regarding the statutory basis for the commitment.

“In order to avoid this problem in the future, we determine that going forward circuit courts in recommitment proceedings are to make specific factual findings with reference to the subdivision of paragraph of § 51.20(1)(a)2. on which the recommitment is based,” the majority’s opinion said. Further, it found an erroneous standard was used below. “A determination of dangerousness is not a factual determination, but a legal one based on underlying facts.”

In looking at the facts, it found that Dr. Coates provided no evidence that “death, serious physical injury, serious physical debilitation, or serious physical disease” would ensue if treatment were withdrawn. He testified only that D.J.W. “can’t care for himself” because he was unable to hold a job, had to rely on disability for income, and live with family. He further indicated “danger in my opinion is not suicidal or homicidal ideations. Although those are possibilities. There is an increased risk of suicide in people with schizophrenia.”

The court, however, cited O’Conner v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975), which determined that “a State cannot constitutionally confine without more a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing or responsible family members or friends.”

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Related legal case

Langlade County v. D.J.W.