July 26, 2022– The collateral consequences of an expired involuntary commitment order render an appeal of the order not moot, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled.
In Sauk County v. S.A.M., the supreme court ruled (4-3) that because the commitment order affected the firearm rights of the person subject to the commitment order and subjected him to potential financial liability, his appeal was not moot.
Justice Jill Karofsky wrote the opinion for the majority, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, Justice Brian Hagedorn, and Justice Rebecca Dallet.
Chief Justice Annette Ziegler filed a concurring/dissenting opinion; joined by Justice Patience Roggensack and Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley.
Detained After Threats of Self-Harm
In 2017, Sauk County authorities detained S.A.M. on an emergency basis after his father said that S.A.M. said he wanted to die. S.A.M’s father told a sheriff’s deputy that his son, who suffers from bipolar disorder with psychotic features, had been homeless for a long time.
According to an examining psychiatrist, S.A.M. had stopped taking his medication and had a history of doing so. S.A.M. admitted using alcohol and illicit drugs and harming himself. In January 2018, S.A.M. threatened to harm himself and told his sister that he wanted to die.
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Sauk County petitioned to have S.A.M. involuntarily committed for six months of involuntary treatment; the Sauk County Circuit Court granted the petition.
In its order, the court prohibited S.A.M. from possessing a firearm, a ban that was to survive the expiration of the commitment order and was to remain in effect until canceled by the court.
Petition for Recommitment
Before the expiration of the initial commitment order, the county petitioned the court to extend S.A.M.’s involuntary commitment.
During the trial on the petition to extend the recommitment, S.A.M. argued that the county’s petition was imprecise.
While the county claimed there was a substantial likelihood that he would be a proper subject for recommitment if treatment were withdrawn under Wis. Stat. section 51.20(1)(am), S.A.M. argued that claim was contradicted by the order proposed by the county, which stated that S.A.M. was dangerous because he had exhibited behavior that met one or more of the standards listed in section 51.20(1) or (1m).
Court Grants Recommitment Petition
During the trial, Dr. Raimondo and a social worker testified in favor of S.A.M.’s recommitment and S.A.M. testified against it.
Raimondo said that it was her opinion that S.A.M. would not take his medication if he were not committed based on his history. The social worker testified that S.A.M. talked about not wanting any of the services the county offered to help him with being independent.
During his testimony, S.A.M. said that he was committed to staying on his medication, said he hoped to work again as a laborer, and said he would not make the mistake of going off his medication again.
The circuit issued an order extending S.A.M.’s commitment for six months. In the order, the court specified that S.A.M. was prohibited from possessing a firearm and that the prohibition would remain until the court lifted it.
Appeal Took Two Years
S.A.M. filed for post-commitment relief.
Two years after the circuit court issued the recommitment order, the court of appeals dismissed S.A.M.’s appeal as moot. The supreme court granted S.A.M.’s petition for review both on the issue of mootness and on the merits of the recommitment order.
Mootness and Collateral Consequences
In her opinion for the majority, Justice Karofsky explained that when resolving a legal issue will have no practical effect on the underlying controversy, a case is moot.
Consequently, she explained, an appeal from a recommitment order is not moot when either the direct or collateral consequences of the order persist such that vacating the order would practically affect those consequences.
Karofsky pointed out that under Marathon County v. D.K., 2020 WI 8, 937 N.W.2d 901, whether a collateral consequence makes an appeal moot depends on whether a causal relationship exists between the consequence an the order appealed from.
Justice Karofsky concluded that such a relationship existed between the circuit court’s order and both the firearms prohibition and S.A.M.’s liability for the cost of his care.
Effect on Gun Rights
The court of appeals held that vacating the recommitment order and voiding the firearms ban would have no practical effect because the initial commitment order contained its own firearms ban.
But Justice Karofsky explained that if S.A.M. won on appeal and the recommitment order were vacated, it would practically alter his “‘record and reputation’” for dangerousness – a factor a court must consider when ruling on a petition to cancel a firearms ban.
Effect on Liability for Cost of Care
Another practical effect of S.A.M. prevailing on appeal, Karofsky explained, would be avoiding liability for the cost of the care, services, and supplies provided him by the county during his recommitment, a liability imposed by section 46.10(2).
It was irrelevant that the county had not moved to collect any money from S.A.M., Justice Karofsky explained, because under the wording of the statute S.A.M. remained liable.
Ruling on the Merits
On the merits of S.A.M.’s appeal, the supreme court held for the county.
S.A.M. argued that the supreme court’s recent decision in Langlade County v. D.J.W., 2020 WI (April 24, 2020) should govern his appeal. In that case, the supreme court held that circuit courts “must make specific factual findings with reference to the subdivision paragraph of section 51.20(1)(a)2. on which recommitment is based.”
But Justice Karofsky explained that D.J.W. was distinguishable because it 1) addressed a circuit court’s obligation to facilitate appellate review, rather than a county’s pre-trial obligations; and 2) the supreme court made clear that that decisions’ holding would apply only prospectively.
Dissent: Majority Undoes Mootness Doctrine
In her dissent, Chief Justice Ziegler argued that the majority’s holding on the mootness issue would flood the state’s appellate courts with appeals from recommitment orders.
Rather than rely on the capable-of-repetition-yet-likely-to-evade-review exception to mootness, Ziegler argued, the majority had overturned the mootness doctrine. She pointed out that the order recommitting S.A.M. had expired before the court of appeals had taken up the appeal.
Chief Justice Ziegler also pointed out that 1) S.A.M. remained under a separate firearms ban from the initial commitment order, and 2) there was no indication that the county planned to attempt to recoup from S.A.M. the cost of his care.
“Restrictions on the ability of S.A.M. to possess a firearm because of this recommitment and uncertain and unpursued potential financial liability as a result of the recommitment order are nothing more than theoretical possibilities,” Chief Justice Ziegler wrote. “The relevant order expired. We ought not presume collateral consequences that do not exist.”