The News Courier in Athens, Alabama


July 20, 2013

How does the court commit the mentally ill?


The numbers

The number of seriously mentally ill residents who were involuntarily committed to state hospitals has varied over the past decade, according to data from the probate judge’s office.

Between 2004 and 2013, the years for which the number of both petitions and commitments are available, Limestone County probate judges received a total of 351 petitions to have someone involuntarily committed. After considering those petitions, probate judges committed a total of 210, court records show. Here is the yearly breakdown:

2004: 34 petitions; 22 committed;

2005: 33/24;

2006: 34/21;

2007: 30/21;

2008: 40/15;

2009: 33/17;

2010: 25/17;

2011: 45/25;

2012: 48/30;

2013: 29/18 (partial year totals).

Who can file a petition?

Anyone can file a petition in Limestone County to have someone involuntarily committed. However, the judge must find “clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence” of the following before granting such a request:

• The person is mentally ill; and

• The person, because of the mental illness, poses a real and present threat of substantial harm to himself or to others; and

• The person will continue to experience mental distress and deterioration of ability to function independently if not treated; and

• The person is unable to make a rational decision regarding treatment.

Blakely said he has seen committal evolve over the years.

“When I first became sheriff, if a petition was filed the person could be held in the county jail until they could be mentally evaluated,” he said. “That is not the ideal way.”

Bailey said this is probably a good change since people sometimes petition the court to commit a loved one who is actually addicted to drug or alcohol but not mentally ill. Also, she said, there have been cases where a petition was filed amid a domestic dispute when mental illness was not a factor.

According to Blakely, one of the best changes in helping law enforcement officers deal with people with mental illness came about when Mike Davis was probate judge. He said the court began using a mental health officer. The officer is trained to determine whether a person is exhibiting signs of mental illness and he is authorized to hold a person for 48 hours in some cases.

For example, at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, when the probate office is closed, an officer might call the mental health officer to report a transient who stepped off an 18-wheeler from California exhibited signs of hysteria and paranoia and was taken to the hospital. Officers don’t know if the transient is high on drugs or mentally ill. If the person does not test positive for drugs, the mental health officer can make a determination and place a 48-hour hold on the transient, which gives family or mental health officials time to act.

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