Court limits states' right to confine in hospitals Prisoners must go free if sane, 5 justices say

May 19, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Norris West and Michael Ollove of the metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court told states yesterday that they may not hold dangerous individuals indefinitely in hospitals for the criminally insane after they regain their sanity.

Being dangerous is not enough reason to prolong for years the forced hospitalization of an individual who committed a crime while insane, the court declared.

The decision was one of two on the rights of mentally disturbed persons accused of crimes.

In the other, the court ruled 7-2 in a Nevada murder case that an accused person may be forced to take "anti-psychotic" drugs to maintain his sanity during a coming trial if officials can justify that treatment as absolutely necessary.

The controversial 5-4 ruling on the release of sane but still dangerous individuals struck down a procedure used in Louisiana.

The exact impact of the ruling was somewhat unclear, although the dissenters complained that the decision put "troubling" new limits on states' power to protect society and might mean the early release of very dangerous individuals.

Four justices joined in a sweeping opinion implying that states would have to free those individuals who became sane during their stay at a facility for the criminally insane, but there was no clear-cut majority for that prospect.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose vote was necessary to make the majority, wrote a separate, far narrower opinion suggesting that states may yet find valid ways to avoid freeing dangerous persons who have been found not guilty of a crime because of insanity.

It also was unclear how many states may be affected by the new ruling; the dissenters suggested that a dozen states' procedures on detaining the criminally insane might fall, but Justice O'Connor said that was an exaggeration.

The decision appears unlikely to have an effect in Maryland, according to George Lipman, head of the Mental Health Division in the Maryland Public Defender's office. Most people in Maryland who are found not guilty because of insanity go to the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, which is required by state law to release any patient who has recovered, even if considered dangerous -- so long as the danger does not arise from a mental disorder or retardation, but merely from an anti-social personality.

Under the Louisiana procedure struck down by the court yesterday, an individual sent to a mental hospital after being found not guilty of a crime because of insanity cannot get out even if sanity returns, so long as that person fails to prove that he or she is no longer dangerous.

Justice Byron R. White, who wrote the court's main opinion, noted that the American legal system normally does not allow someone to be confined just because of dangerous behavior. The usual rule, he said, is that forced confinement can only follow a conviction for a specific crime.

The court majority stressed that it was not taking away the power of states to order the automatic hospitalization at a facility for the criminally insane for anyone who is found not guilty because of insanity. Rather, it put limits on the length of that stay, and on the reasons for continued confinement.

Justice O'Connor's separate opinion said the court was leaving room for the states to experiment with laws that would provide for punishment through jailing of those who commit crimes while mentally ill, if the continued confinement were limited in time and had some connection to continued treatment, and if only those whose crimes were the most serious were subject to continued confinement.

The ruling will require the state of Louisiana to reconsider its plan to hold Terry Foucha of New Orleans at a hospital for the criminally insane in Jackson. Foucha was sent there after he was ruled insane at the time he forced his way into a couple's home with a revolver, and held them at gunpoint until they were able to escape.

After he had stayed about three years at the Jackson facility, a panel of doctors concluded that he was no longer insane and could be released, under conditions including treatment of substance abuse. The doctors could not say confidently that he was not dangerous, so authorities decided to continue detaining him.

Justice White's main opinion in Foucha's favor was supported in full by Justices Harry A. Blackmun, David H. Souter, and John Paul Stevens, and in part by Justice O'Connor. Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The court's other major ruling yesterday may bring a new trial for a Nevada death row inmate, but it appeared to be only a limited victory for mentally disturbed defendants forced to take anti-psychotic drugs while they are on trial.

David E. Riggins of Las Vegas was tried for the stabbing murder of a man in a fight over drugs. Because he heard voices, doctors prescribed the drug Mellaril; by the time of his trial, he was getting a daily dose of 800 milligrams.

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