A mentally ill patient involuntarily sent to a psychiatric hospital has a constitutional right to leave once the court order for detention and treatment expires, his lawyer argued before New York's top court Friday.
A hospital lawyer said that patient and others like him should first face a hearing on their mental capacity as specified in state law to determine if it's safe to release them.
The question will be decided by the Court of Appeals, which heard both sides Friday in Albany. A ruling is expected next month.
The specific case concerns a man identified in court documents as Stephen S., who was detained in Holliswood Hospital in Queens for weeks after his court-ordered three-month psychiatric treatment had expired in 2012.
Mental Hygiene Legal Service petitioned for his release, and the hospital then sought a new court order to keep him, with two doctors saying he was still psychotic and dangerous. Stephen was eventually released in 2013, and the hospital closed in 2014, but the case and its legal ramifications remained unresolved.
At issue is the writ of habeas corpus, a foundational matter in U.S. jurisprudence filed in court to require authorities to produce a person who is unlawfully detained.
The immediate question is how that squares with New York's mental health law and at psychiatric hospitals like Holliswood, which had mistakenly failed to get Stephen's order extended.
Hospital attorney Eric Broutman said Friday that circumstances like these are rare. And even then, New York law requires a status hearing on a patient's mental health before releasing him, he argued.
"Otherwise we're dealing with a potentially farcical situation where we're releasing a patient out the back door just to bring them through the front door to re-admit them," he said.
But Lisa Volpe, a lawyer for Mental Hygiene Legal Service, said the constitutional right of Stephen and patients like him against unlawful detention trumps state law and they should be released from unlawful detention. She said circumstances like his aren't rare.
Several judges asked what would happen then with a patient still deemed dangerous to himself or others.
"He can be re-committed," Volpe said, adding that the re-admission process can be completed within days.
She noted that discharge planning should begin when a person is admitted, which generally includes outpatient programs when they are released. Volpe said the state law was actually intended to give patients the ability to challenge lawful psychiatric detention when they believe their mental health has improved enough.