Advocates for the disabled sue the state

Class action suit seeks to limit detention time for people unfit for trial

August 27, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

After Edward Jordan was arrested on charges of trespassing on the grounds of a Baltimore County church, he was sent to a mental hospital because state doctors decided he was not fit to stand trial.

Nearly four years later, he is still in the hospital awaiting trial, even though doctors say the 54-year-old Jordan is not a danger to the community and has "nil" chance of becoming fit to stand trial, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Jordan fell from a set of parallel bars when he was 12 and suffered serious brain injuries.

The class action lawsuit, filed by the Maryland Disabilities Law Center against the state of Maryland, seeks to limit to 90 days the time that Maryland courts can hold detainees such as Jordan without determining whether they can stand trial in the "foreseeable future."

It also asks that if detainees are moving toward mental recovery, they not be held in a hospital for longer than they would have been imprisoned had they been convicted.

In the lawsuit, the disabilities law center - which advocates for the rights of people with disabilities - calls for such detainees to be released or confined to a mental hospital under a civil commitment rather than a criminal one.

The lawsuit deals with people charged with petty crimes who have mental problems so severe that they cannot assist in their legal defense.

A spokesman for the state attorney general's office said he was not able to comment on the suit because state lawyers had not had time to review it.

There are 156 people being held in state-run facilities who are not able to stand trial, said W. Lawrence Fitch, director of forensic services for the Mental Hygiene Administration, which evaluates defendants for mental health competency.

Fitch said state doctors have found that 45 of the detainees are not likely to be competent enough for trial.

The issue is distinct from the more common practice of defendants pleading not criminally responsible at trial. In those cases, the defendants are asserting that they are generally sane but were not mentally well during the time when they committed their crimes.

This lawsuit deals with people who sometimes do not understand that they have committed a crime or are not able to grasp the legal process of a trial.

Jordan, who was charged in 2000 with trespassing and harassment, would have been sentenced to a maximum of 120 days in jail had he been convicted of the misdemeanor charges. Instead, he has been held nearly 12 times as long, and there is no plan to release him, according to the lawsuit.

The suit asks that Jordan be committed to a civil mental facility or released to his mother, who has repeatedly requested to take him home. Jordan lived with his mother for 10 years in the Nottingham section of Baltimore County before he was arrested.

Other people named in the lawsuit have been in state-run facilities for more than seven years.

They have been charged with crimes including trying to grab money from the driver of a car at an intersection and purse snatching.

Under Maryland law, a court may commit defendants to mental hospitals indefinitely to help them become competent for trial.

"They remain on locked wards irrespective of the fact that their treatment teams consider them to be no threat to themselves or others," the lawsuit says. "They are thus unable to enjoy even the simple luxury of walking on the grounds for fresh air or recreation, and are further denied the opportunity to join in the many educational, social and therapeutic activities that are offered only outside the ward."

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