- Associated Press - Monday, February 17, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A committee of the Wyoming Senate on Monday recommended approval of a bill that would change state law to remove the requirement that a judge must review within 72 hours the involuntary hospitalization of people for mental health treatment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Monday voted unanimously Monday to advance the bill. It now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Representatives from the Wyoming ACLU, the Wyoming Trial Lawyers’ Association and the Wyoming County Attorneys’ Association all testified that they opposed doing away with the judicial hearings. The groups say they see potential for people to be held unconstitutionally.

Sublette County Attorney Neal Stelting, speaking on behalf of Wyoming County Attorneys Association, said the association objects to the elimination of the hearing. “We believe that is a required constitutional safeguard,” he said.

Under the current law, a person taken into custody on a mental health hold must be examined after 36 hours by a licensed health or mental health professional examiner. If the person is not found to be mentally ill or a danger to self or others, the person must be released.

If the person isn’t released, the preliminary hearing in front of a judge must occur within 72 hours, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays.

Under the bill, a person who’s detained would have to be evaluated by a physician or other professional within four hours of their detention. If the person were kept in custody, he or she would get another hearing within 36 hours by a physician or other evaluator, which could be a marriage or family therapist.

If authorities wanted to keep a person hospitalized involuntarily longer, the committee bill calls for a county attorney to bring action in court. The bill specifies that such court hearings would have to be held within 96 hours, again excluding weekends and holidays. If a jury hearing were required, it would have to be held within 15 days and the person could be held involuntarily while that played out.

Linda Burt, executive director of the ACLU in Wyoming, told the committee her organization objects to the prospect of citizens being held by the government up to 15 days with no legal oversight.

“I do not believe that meets the due process, constitutional level that we want to look at for people when we’re taking away their privacy and their freedom,” Burt said.

“We’re taking them away from their homes, away from their families, away from their jobs,” she said. “I’ve had individuals that have lost their employment because they were detained for a period of time, and their employer would not take them back. There are significant problems associated with this. This is like going to jail, in terms of how it affects people.”

Chairman Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, said the bill is intended to make sure that people aren’t held for long periods for legal reasons without getting them mental health treatment. He said there’s currently no consistency among counties in how they handle involuntary commitment proceedings.

“When you go through these hearings, they do not provide any treatment remedies. Those are legal proceedings, and someone is held throughout those,” Schiffer said.

“In terms of treatment of the underlying mental illness, nothing happens,” he continued. “We’re wasting daylight on a deal like that. What this bill does, what it’s about, is we’re saying it doesn’t make sense for someone that’s ill to be on hold basically with no treatment for that period of time while they’re waiting on the courts to move.”