Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law
New York's Involuntary Hospitalization of Sex Offenders upon Release from Prison Ruled Illegal
Since 2001, at least five bills have been introduced but not enacted in New York to establish involuntary civil confinement of sex offenders. In October 2005 it was reported that New York's governor, unwilling to wait any longer for such legislation, charged state officials to "push the envelope" on existing state mental health law to use it as a vehicle for the involuntary hospitalization of inmates determined to be sexually violent predators who were being released from state prisons upon completion of their sentence.
Twelve such ex-prisoners who were transferred from prison to a psychiatric hospital challenged the legality of these transfers in a writ of habeas corpus. They had been committed under a section of New York law that permits involuntary hospitalization for a period of sixty days without court approval based upon the certificates of two examining physicians.
A New York Supreme Court judge ruled that this section was inapplicable to these individuals and thus they were being illegally detained. The court determined that a different section that governs the transfer of mentally ill prisoners to mental health facilities should instead have been applied. This section, which had been crafted to conform to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980), provides various procedural protections, including a required examination by two independent physicians appointed by a judge and subsequent judicial approval of any proposed transfer.
The court dismissed the argument that this section was not applicable to these individuals because their prison sentences had ended. The court noted that each of these individuals were, in fact, imprisoned at the time of their civil commitment and it had not been shown why, if they were mentally ill and in need of hospitalization, they were not hospitalized prior to their release date, which in turn would have permitted their continued detention after their terms of imprisonment had expired. …