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April 08, 2014 7:41 am

Supreme Court tells county attorney he must attend hearings

Written by CJ Baker

The Wyoming Supreme Court has clarified Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric’s job description — saying he needs to take a leading role in protecting the safety and rights of mentally ill patients held against their will.

Police officers or mental health professionals, known as examiners, can detain individuals if there’s “reasonable cause” to believe they pose a threat to themselves or others as a result of mental illness. Assuming the individual continues to present a danger, the next step is a hearing in District Court before a judge or court commissioner. The matters are typically referred to as Title 25 cases because of the section of state law that governs them.

Historically, the Park County attorney has been the one to present Title 25 cases to the court in support of the individual’s continued detention. Skoric, however, threw the process into some disarray in early 2013 when he decided he could no longer present the cases. He let the obligation fall to attorneys from Cody’s West Park Hospital for the handful of cases that made it to District Court over the past year.

The trigger for Skoric’s decision was a February 2013 Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that he read as greatly limiting his role in the process. The court said last month, however, that Skoric had misinterpreted the decision and that it is his duty — and not West Park’s — to consider and present the commitment cases he deems appropriate.

“A county attorney appearing on behalf of the State best serves the (involuntary hospitalization) statute’s purpose by commencing and presenting the case for detention or commitment, because these proceedings involve public safety, public funds, and most importantly the safety, wellbeing and liberty of proposed patients,” Justice Michael Davis wrote.

West Park Hospital and Yellowstone Behavorial Health Center attorney Chris Edwards welcomed the decision.

Skoric said in an interview that the decision also makes sense to him.

“It gave the clarification that I’ve been searching for — something the Legislature hadn’t given us over the years,” he said.

Skoric noted the Supreme Court agreed with his position that the state laws governing the commitment of mentally ill individuals had been unclear and open to interpretation. The Wyoming Legislature also apparently agreed the law was unclear: lawmakers passed a bill last month (it takes effect in July) clarifying that the county attorney needs to present the cases.

The ambiguity had been Skoric’s chief concern. He had worried that continuing to be involved with a process that didn’t appear to be a part of his official duties would open him up to litigation.

West Park Hospital officials, not wanting the responsibility for similar legal, cost and patient safety concerns, ultimately turned to the Supreme Court to sort out the issue. West Park attorneys had to present the cases that came up between Skoric’s February 2013 decision to stop leading the process and the March 2014 ruling, averaging less than one case per month.

Most local residents who are detained for mental illness that presents a danger to them or others are sent to the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper for treatment. When that’s not an option, a Title 25 case is opened in Park County seeking to have them involuntarily committed to the state hospital in Evanston.

Skoric said the recent ruling clearly gives him the authority to review and reject cases for hospitalization made by the mental health examiners.

Skoric said at least 25 to 30 percent of cases he handled in the past did not involve true mental illness. He said the process was sometimes abused by examiners who would detain an individual as a kind of cooling-off period and then drop the case a couple days later. Skoric has contended in the past that some cases were more related to substance abuse than mental illness.

“We saw a lot of holds that we didn’t deem were warranted, but obviously felt powerless to do anything about it,” Skoric said.

He said the new decision clearly gives him the authority and discretion to tell an examiner that he won’t be proceeding with a given case and to “cut that patient loose” or risk criminally violating their rights.

“People that truly are a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness, those are the cases that we want to go forward with,” Skoric said.

The breaking point in the process was a Feb. 6, 2013, Supreme Court opinion, also written by Justice Davis.

The gist of the ruling was that a county attorney — and specifically Skoric — does not have the power to object to a Title 25 patient’s release if they’ve been cleared by the state hospital.

Skoric, however, had a broader takeaway. He interpreted one line as saying county attorneys aren’t obligated to appear at the initial emergency detention hearing and need only make a limited appearance at a second, involuntary hospitalization hearing that can follow.

However, in his new opinion, Justice Davis said the way the laws are written leads to the “logical conclusion” that the detention and hospitalization hearings are two parts of the same proceeding. He also noted state law has historically required the county attorney to present the cases.

“If county attorneys were not responsible for commencing and presenting the case during these proceedings, (West Park and Yellowstone Behavioral Health Center) would have to execute their duties as ‘examiners’ ... and also then be forced to initiate and prosecute the court proceedings ..., which would probably require them to retain an attorney,” Davis continued. That, he said, “was obviously not the result the legislature intended.”

Davis added that there’s nothing in state law to suggest that entities like West Park or Yellowstone Behavioral Health have been given police powers.

“Rather, a county attorney, a publicly elected official, is delegated this heavy responsibility,” Davis wrote.

The unanimous court did say that District Court Judge Norman Young was correct when he declined to force Skoric to attend the hearings; Justice Davis noted such orders should only be issued when the law is clear — unlike the ambiguous situation in question.

West Park had twice asked Judge Young to direct Skoric to attend the hearings — the second time following an awkward combined emergency detention/involuntary hospitalization hearing on April 3, 2013.

At that hearing, Deputy Park County Attorney William Struemke had explained his office wouldn’t be presenting the case for hospitalizing the woman in question but would instead “appear in the public interest.”

“In other words, you’re sitting here and yet you’re not going to be involved in the hearing, so are you just here as an observer?” asked Court Commissioner John Housel.

“I guess that’s a good question,” Struemke replied. “If you’re asking as an observer sitting in the background as a member of the audience might, I think the obligation of the county attorney’s office is greater than that, but to say that it is as great as we are the ones that are ... conducting the hearing, I don’t think it extends that far.”

Housel, noting that the county attorney’s office had presented “multitudes” of such cases before, directed Struemke to proceed. Struemke declined and asked the judge to delay and reschedule the involuntary hospitalization portion of the hearing. Cody attorney Nick Beduhn, representing the woman who’d been detained, protested.

Beduhn said a patient has the right to combine the hearings.

“We want to proceed today. This will allow (the woman) an opportunity to get to the State Hospital in a quicker manner so her mental health issues can be addressed appropriately,” Beduhn said. “For the county attorney’s office to come in and object to that right now ... for one, I don’t think they have standing, and two, it’s offensive to the patient sitting to my right.”

Struemke took umbrage to that remark, but Housel said Beduhn was “exactly right” and that the proposed patient “should not be held hostage” to the dispute.

Struemke proceeded under protest.

Edwards, the West Park attorney, said she’s glad the Supreme Court has relieved the hospital of the duty to handle Title 25 cases.

“I’m just happy that the county attorney will be doing it from now on,” Edwards said. “And we look forward to working with him.”

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