Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mental Health Laws After the Death of Kelly Thomas and the Isla Vista Massacre

File:Green ribbon.svgScott Thorpe, an individual suffering from schizophrenia, shot and killed Laura Wilcox at a mental healthclinic over a decade ago.  Shortly thereafter, a law passed in the State of California, named “Laura’s Law.”  It allowed for family members, mental health professionals, and officers to petition the court to order “assisted outpatient treatment” for those who have a severe mental disability.[1]  Laura’s Law is optional for counties to implement.  Until recently, only one county (Nevada County, CA) has the law in place.  After the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man beaten to death in a struggle with Fullerton police, Orange County also implemented the law.  On Tuesday, May 13, 2014, five Orange County supervisors voted unanimously to adopt Laura’s Law.  The law will go into effect in October 2014, and will apply only to severely mentally ill adults who have had two psychiatric hospitalizations or incarcerations in the past two years and who have engaged in violence or attempted violence over the last four years.  Los Angeles County also has a similar pilot project that was set to expire in 2013 but has recently been extended to 2017.[2]


Proponents of the law argue that this law will help save lives, enhance the quality of life, and keep the mentally ill out of jails.[3]  Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, told supervisors that a version of Laura's Law may have helped his son, who he said had struggled with schizophrenia.  The law’s purpose is to help those who may not be able to help themselves. Opponents argued that this law would violate the right of the mentally ill to make decisions about their own medical care. Counties that implement the law are required to develop training and education programs and to ensure that the delivery of the services to the mentally disabled community is done in the right manner.[4] Orange County plans to have universities and other organizations analyze data that their county staff will be required to collect.

Laura’s Law is not the first of its kind.  The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act was passed in 1967 in California, allowing “mental health professionals, officers, and courts to involuntarily commit individuals who, as a result of a mental disability, are: (1) a danger to themselves or others; or (2) "unable to provide for [their] basic personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter" ("gravely disabled").”[5] 

Litigation against the mentally ill in California has not stopped there.  After the UC Santa Barbara Shooting in May of 2014, the California Legislature is considering a law that will allow family or friends of someone purchasing a gun to notify law enforcement officers that this individual could harm himself or others.   “The family of Elliot Rodger, the shooter, had raised concerns with law enforcement about his mental state, and Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies visited Rodger at his apartment in April but took no action against him.”  This law could potentially help save lives by stopping those that have tendencies to act criminally.  The problems are similar to Laura’s Law in that it may violate the right for the mentally ill individuals to make decisions about their own medical care.  There is also a concern that unqualified individuals could jam the courts with frivolous complaints demanding for gun violence restraining orders without actual evidence.

Could it be certain individuals or organizations are using their political clout to create unconstitutional legislation in the aftermath of recent attacks, or can the proposed legislation actually benefit the public?

Generally, in Criminal Law the mentally ill can have a valid defense to a criminal act if they are found to be incapable of comprehending their actions. When the tests set out by the rules are satisfied, the accused may be adjudged "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "guilty but insane" and the sentence may be a mandatory period of treatment in a secure hospital facility. Under California's insanity defense, also known as the McNaghten rule, one is considered legally insane if he either (1) did not understand the nature of his criminal act, or (2) did not understand that what he was doing was morally wrong. Laura’s Law and the legislation being considered after the Isla Vista Massacre is an attempt to cure/stop a mentally ill individual before she acts dangerously. The next question is, if an insane individual under treatment acts dangerously, does she still qualify as insane, allowing her to be prosecuted under the McNaghten test?  Finally, if forcing someone to take medication causes him to act irresponsibly, should they still be held liable? 

Hassan Mukhlis
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by MesserWoland via Wikimedia Commons.


[1] 22 S. Cal. Rev. L. & Social Justice 233.  PSYCHOTROPIC MEDICATION IN CALIFORNIA: A PRESCRIPTION FOR ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES, 22 S. Cal. Rev. L. & Social Justice 233.
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.

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