Tuesday, June 2, 2015
State High Court Throws Out Relative’s Suit Against Mental Health Department Over Release of Killer
By a MetNews Staff Writer
State officials cannot be held liable to a woman whose sister was killed by a former prison inmate four days after his release, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The justices agreed with Elaina Novoa that the State Department of Mental Health—now the State Department of State Hospitals—had a mandatory duty to have Gilton Pitre evaluated by two psychiatrists or psychologists before concluding that his release would not violate the Sexually Violent Predators Act. But the release of Pitre based on a report by a single evaluator was not the legal cause of the rape and murder of 15-year-old Alyssa Gomez, Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the high court.
Pitre, who in 2007 was about to be released after serving a 32-month sentence for a drug crime, was subject to the SVPA because of a 1996 rape conviction, and was referred for evaluation by the Department of Corrections. Had he been evaluated by two experts appointed by the Department of Mental Health, and both concluded that he suffered from a mental condition that made if likely he would engage in sexual violence, he could have been committed indefinitely to the state hospital system rather than being released.
According to Novoa’s complaint, his case was not referred to two experts because the single evaluator, based solely on materials received from the DOC, concluded he was suitable for release. Had the evaluator been provided with Pitre’s full record, including the details of the 1996 rape, the case would have been referred to a full two-expert evaluation and he would not have been released, Novoa alleged.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal had sided with the plaintiff, overruling the department’s demurrer. But the Court of Appeal reversed, and the Supreme Court yesterday agreed that the case must be dismissed.
Corrigan explained that the SVPA’s requirement that an inmate referred by the DOC “shall be evaluated by two practicing psychiatrists or psychologists” creates a mandatory duty, rejecting the state’s claim that each step of the screening process is discretionary.
But in concluding that the alleged breach of that duty did not proximately cause Alyssa Gomez’s death, Corrigan wrote:
“The only mandatory duty established by the complaint’s allegations is the duty to use two evaluators; the details of the manner in which each evaluator conducts the review are discretionary, so long as they include the statutory criteria. Thus, no actionable breach of duty can be found in the single evaluator’s failure to conclude that Pitre was an SVP. Nor can plaintiff hypothesize a positive finding by that evaluator as a link in the chain of proximate causation.”
Before Pitre could have been committed as an SVP, the justice explained, he would have to have been afforded a jury trial, with a unanimous finding that he was likely, beyond a reasonable doubt, to reoffend. “[W]ith each step in the review process, the results become more speculative,” she wrote.
In addition, the jurist said, public policy considerations regarding governmental discretion support the state’s position. “
“We note that if the review conducted by the single DMH evaluator had been performed by DOC at the previous stage of the review process, Pitre would have been released without any referral to DMH, and no cause of action would lie,” she wrote. “Under these circumstances, as a policy matter, DMH’s failure to appoint a second evaluator cannot properly be considered a proximate cause of Pitre’s heinous crime.”
Corrigan was joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Ming Chin and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, joined by Justices Goodwin H. Liu and Leondra Kruger, concurred separately, rejecting the majority’s public policy analysis.
The case is State Department of State Hospitals v. Superior Court (Novoa), 15 S.O.S. 2729
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company