Commitment Issues: Chasse Death Cited in Involuntary Detention

From the Portland Mercury, March 20, 2008

Multnomah County’s commitment court ruled at the end of 2006 that an allegedly mentally ill woman should be locked in a psychiatric hospital, because it would be safer than wandering the streets like James Chasse — where the person risked being “beaten to death” by cops, according to the judge.

The Oregon State Appeals Court overturned the woman’s involuntary commitment last Wednesday, March 12—and, in the process, revealed the judge’s statements—saying Judge Lewis B. Lawrence (pictured) was wrong to draw the conclusion that the woman “was a danger to herself because some officer, at some unknown point in the future, might kill or harm her.”

The woman, who was not named under commitment statutes designed to protect her confidentiality, had fought with police when she was originally taken into custody on a mental health hold.

Referring to this, the commitment court took “absolute judicial notice” of the fact that “fighting with police… is certainly something that puts mentally ill people at risk of death or serious physical injury,” according to the appeals court verdict.

“The court commented on the then-recent death of James Chasse, stating that Chasse, an unarmed mentally ill person, ‘was confronted by police, and he was beaten to death,'” the appeals court verdict continues.

Significantly, the commitment court took “absolute judicial notice” of Chasse’s having been “beaten to death.” In legal terms, a judge is only supposed to take judicial notice of a fact when it is obvious and undisputed.

Chasse, a schizophrenic, died following an altercation with police officers and sheriff’s deputies on the corner of NW 13th and Everett on September 17, 2006, though the exact circumstances of his death are mysterious. His family is continuing to pursue a lawsuit against the City of Portland, Multnomah County, and the ambulance firm American Medical Response, who cleared Chasse for transport to jail.

Commitment verdicts are sealed from public scrutiny once they are made, unless they are overturned at appeal. However, the appeals court has overturned 23 commitments in Multnomah County since December 2006, either because the commitment court had insufficient evidence to commit the person, or because procedures weren’t followed.

In one case, a commitment was overturned because it was held “in the hallway of a hospital while appellant was naked in a hospital room, in the midst of a medical crisis, and unable to hear or participate meaningfully in the entire proceeding,” according to the appeals court verdict.

Usually, a person is ruled a danger to themselves or others because of, for example, repeated suicide attempts, thinking bleach is a magic drink sent from heaven, carrying a knife around and believing they are on a divine quest, or believing they are impervious to gunfire.

Simply having a tendency to fight with police isn’t sufficient, says the appeals court, no matter how dangerous a judge may believe the police to be.

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