Monday, March 9, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Opinion Upholds $370,000 in Penalties Imposed on Department of State Hospitals for Its Failure To Abide by Court Directives to Accept, Timely, Persons Found to Be Incompetent to Be Tried
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district on Friday affirmed the Los Angeles Superior Court’s imposition of four sanctions, totaling $370,000, on a department of the State of California based on disobedience of orders in 247 cases to move a person found incompetent to stand trial from a county jail to a state hospital within the time specified.
Although the orders generally called for admittance to state facilities within 30 days, all sanctions involved failures to accept the defendants until 60 days or more after the orders were issued.
Judge James Bianco imposed those sanctions, under Code of Civil Procedure §177.5, after years of discussions with officials of the Department of State Hospitals (“DSH”) failed to produce a quickened pace in accepting persons found to be incompetent to stand trial (“IST”). The department protested that it simply does not have the bed space available and is thus compelled to use wait lists.
Div. One of the appeals court found that excuse inadequate. Its opinion was authored by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory Weingart, sitting on assignment.
Section 177.5 provides, in part:
“A judicial officer shall have the power to impose reasonable money sanctions, not to exceed fifteen hundred dollars ($1,500), notwithstanding any other provision of law, payable to the court, for any violation of a lawful court order by a person, done without good cause or substantial justification….For the purposes of this section, the term ‘person’ includes a witness, a party, a party’s attorney, or both.”
Section 177.5 does not apply to it, DSH proclaimed, because it is not a “person,” given that it is not “a witness,” “a party,” or “a party’s attorney.”
The legislative intent, Weingart responded, was to give judges the power to impose sanctions on “people directly involved in a proceeding before the court,” quoting an Assembly Committee on the Judiciary report on the t1982 bill creating the section.
“The fact that a person before the court does not fit squarely into the definition of a party, a party’s attorney, or a witness does not exclude them from being a person directly involved in a proceeding. Had the Legislature wanted to limit ‘person’ to only those three categories, it would have omitted the word ‘includes’ altogether,” he reasoned.
Weingart went on to say that “[b]ecause IST defendants’ criminal trials cannot, as a matter of law, proceed without DSH admitting patients, administering treatment, and reporting to the trial court on the results of that treatment,” with trials resuming upon a competency having been restored, “to rule section 177.5 does not apply to lawful orders to DSH would defeat the purpose of the statute.”
Serve Valid Purposes
Weingart commented that penalizing the DSH has the salutary purpose of prodding it to speed up its process and thus protect the defendants’ rights, and also compensates the courts for sapping its resources in pushing for compliance with its orders. He pointed out:
“When DSH stalls the treatment process, the entire criminal case (here, all 247 criminal cases) gets stalled too, implicating not only the defendants’ rights, but the People’s right for the criminal case not to be unnecessarily delayed (with attendant witness and other evidentiary difficulties) and the right of the alleged victims to a prompt and final conclusion of the criminal case.”
DSH argued that it could not grant admittance to state hospitals when it did not have beds available. Weingart responded that it has been coming up with excuses for the past 10 years, declaring:
“The trial court never implied it thought DSH should or could build new beds overnight. Nor is there any indication in the record that the court ignored DSH’s limitations and the reality of the complex situation at hand. The court instead found that given the many years DSH has had to address excessive wait times, it has not done enough to warrant continuous excusal from abiding by the court’s commitment orders, especially given that violation of the court’s orders means a violation of IST defendants’ constitutional and statutory rights.”
The case is People v. Kareem A., 2020 S.O.S. 1006.
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company