High court rules on forced commitment of state's mentally ill

Patients must be determined to be a danger, judges say

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Mentally ill patients must be a danger to themselves or others before they can be locked up against their will, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled.

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Justices said Friday they also can be confined if they are so disabled by illness that they "cannot survive safely in freedom."

In a unanimous opinion, the high court upheld Alaska law that allows involuntary commitments at a state mental hospital but strengthened protections for the mentally ill by defining who can be committed.

The justices also disapproved the forced drugging of a specific patient. Although forced drugging is allowed in some circumstances, this particular case was mishandled, they said.

The high court ruled in a case brought by Anchorage psychiatric rights lawyer Jim Gottstein. He sued in 2005 on behalf of a woman who had bipolar disorder.

Roslyn Wetherhorn was committed to API for 30 days after going off her medicine and making statements some found bizarre, such as that the owner of a local grocery store was going to take her to the pope's funeral. She later said she had joked about using the governor's jet and that maybe someone misunderstood her.

It was acceptable for API to seek forced commitment in the case, the justices said. Questions involving the standard used are moot because Wetherhorn no longer is at API, but the tightened definition should apply in future cases.

Holding people against their will for mental treatment is a "massive curtailment of liberty," according to a characterization by the U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion cited by the Alaska court.

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