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  • WisBar News
    January 05, 2016

    Involuntary Commitment: Supreme Court Rejects Inmate’s Constitutional Challenge

    Joe Forward

    Jan. 5, 2016 – A prison inmate who appealed orders to involuntary commit him and treat him with psychotropic drugs recently lost his appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which rejected his constitutional challenge to the involuntary commitment statute.

    In Christopher S. v. Winnebago County, 2016 WI 1 (Jan. 5, 2016), the state supreme court affirmed the circuit court orders, concluding that judges can order involuntary commitment and treatment of inmates without first finding they are “dangerous.”

    Under the involuntary commitment for treatment statute, Wis. Stat. section 51.20, a petitioner (usually the county) must allege and prove the subject is mentally ill, developmentally disabled, or drug dependent, and is also a danger to himself or others.

    For prison inmates, though, proving the inmate is dangerous is not specifically required. Inmates can be involuntarily committed if the petitioner shows the inmate is mentally ill and “is a proper subject for treatment and is in need of treatment,” among other things.

    Christopher S. was serving a 10-year prison sentence for mayhem as a repeater when Winnebago County successfully sought to involuntarily commit him to a mental health facility.

    He appealed the order, raising a facial constitutional challenge to the involuntary commitment provision that applies to prison inmates, section 51.20(1)(ar). He said the statute facially violates prison inmates’ substantive due process rights.

    He also argued that he had a statutory right, under section 51.61, to refuse psychotropic medication and treatment, and the court committed an error when it ruled that he was incompetent to refuse treatment. The state supreme court took the case on certification from the state court of appeals, and the court recently rejected his claims.

    “As to the first issue, we hold that Wis. Stat. § 51.20(1)(ar) is facially constitutional because it is reasonably related to the State’s legitimate interest in providing care and assistance to inmates suffering from mental illness,” wrote Justice Michael Gableman.

    Gableman's majority opinion, joined by three other justices, noted that rational basis review, and not a stricter standard, applies to inmates challenging liberty restraints under the involuntary commitment statute.

    “As to the second issue, we affirm the circuit court because it did not err when it found by clear and convincing evidence that Christopher was incompetent to refuse psychotropic medication and treatment,” Justice Gableman wrote in the majority opinion.

    The opinion noted that counties bear the burden of proving inmates are incompetent to refuse medication by clear and convincing evidence, and the county did so.

    That is, the county used reliable evidence, including the testimony of treating physicians, to prove Christopher’s mental illness rendered him incompetent.

    Physicians had determined that he suffered from delusions and psychotic disorders, including paranoid schizophrenia, and could not make an informed choice about the advantages, disadvantages, or alternatives to accepting or refusing medication.


    Justice Shirley Abrahamson, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, concurred in part and dissented in part. They agreed the county met its burden to prove Christopher was incompetent to refuse medication, under the statute. They also agreed that counties are not required to show an inmate’s “dangerousness” to obtain commitment orders.

    However, they rejected the use of rational basis review when prisoners challenge involuntary commitment or involuntary medication orders, arguing that no Wisconsin or U.S. Supreme Court case clearly describes the standard to be used in such cases.

    “I conclude that the State must show an ‘essential’ or ‘overriding’ state interest – for example, ensuring prison safety or security – to overcome a prisoner’s significant, constitutionally protected liberty interests in avoiding involuntary commitment to a mental institution and the stigma attached thereto,” Justice Abrahamson wrote.

    Justice Rebecca Bradley did not participate in the case.

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