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  • WisBar News
    April 08, 2015

    Supreme Court Could Hear Prisoner Challenge to Involuntary Treatment Statute

    Joe Forward
    Legal Writer

    April 8, 2015 – In a case of first impression, the Wisconsin Supreme Court may decide whether circuit court judges can order the civil commitment of prison inmates for involuntary medication treatment without first finding the inmate is dangerous.

    The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has certified Winnebago County v. Christopher S., a case in which petitioner raises a constitutional challenge to Wis. Stat. section 51.20(1)(ar), which allows prison inmates to be civilly committed if the inmate is mentally ill or deemed a “proper subject for treatment and is in need of treatment.”

    Nonprisoners, under the state’s involuntary commitment statute, can only be civilly committed for treatment if the person is a proper subject for treatment and is dangerous.

    The petitioner, a prison inmate, says the civil commitment of inmates for treatment without a similar finding of dangerousness violates prisoners’ due process rights.

    “A definitive answer to this question from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, along with an appropriate statement as to the level of appropriate constitutional scrutiny to apply in such a case, would be of great value to the bench, the bar, the legislature, and the citizenry,” the appeals court wrote in its bypass certification to the supreme court.

    The petition notes that prisoners who are civilly committed can refuse medication and treatment, but a court can order medication and treatment if the court determines the person is not competent to refuse it, even without finding the inmate is dangerous.

    A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the appeals court explained, “appears to indicate that before an inmate can be treated with antipsychotic drugs against his or her will, the government must demonstrate the inmate poses a danger to him-/herself or others.”

    “An unambiguous statement from our supreme court as to whether substantive due process does in fact require a showing of dangerousness before an inmate may be civilly committed for treatment and medicated against his or her will would be of significant value,” the certification states.

    The state argues that section 51.20(1)(ar) passes constitutional muster because, regardless of dangerousness, committing inmates for treatment is “rationally related” to the penological goal of providing mental health services to inmates.

    Christopher S. argues that strict scrutiny applies – the government must show the law is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest – because prisoners have a fundamental liberty interest in refusing forced medication without consent.

    The appeals court also asks for guidance on this issue: “Rational basis review appears to be the correct standard under which to review § 51.20(1)(ar); however, a clear statement on the standard from the Wisconsin Supreme Court would be of value.”

    The supreme court will review cases on certification from the state appeals court if a majority of justices vote to review it.

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