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Murphy, the ITA Court Comfort Dog

 

The Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA) Court handles involuntary mental health commitment cases.  People with a mental illness who present a risk to themselves or others may be detained involuntarily and placed into one of the King County inpatient mental health evaluation and treatment facilities:

Patients being involuntarily detained have the right to have a court hearing in front of a Superior Court Judge or Commissioner where a prosecutor must present evidence to prove that the patient meets the legal criteria for an involuntary commitment. These hearings take place in ITA Court.

When a patient is detained by the King County Designated Mental Health Professionals (DMHPs), the patient cannot be held involuntarily for more than 72 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) without a hearing before a Superior Court Judge or Commissioner.  During the 72 hours, the hospital employees evaluate the patient and provide treatment and safety.  If the hospital treatment team determines that the patient should be held for more than 72 hours, the hospital petitions the court for an order of involuntary treatment and a hearing is scheduled.
If you have received a subpoena to testify in a case, you will have been asked to appear by 8:30 a.m. on the day of the scheduled hearing.  The case is unlikely to begin at 8:30 a.m. because the ITA Court deals with a very high volume of cases each day.  The ITA Court will prioritize cases based upon a number of factors including the treatment needs of the patients, when the patient can be transported from the hospital to court, the availability of necessary interpreters, compliance with timelines established by law, and the availability of an open courtroom.  Unfortunately, the factors determining a case’s priority may change throughout the court day.  Accordingly, you may have to wait for several hours before you testify. If you call the witness check in line 206-744-7774 between 2pm and 4pm the day before the hearing, a paralegal may be able to give you more specific information about when your case will be heard.

During your wait, you may be asked to discuss the matter with attorneys or meet with the patient.  Once you check in with the Paralegal for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and you have confirmed you are not needed for interviews or other meetings, you may leave the ITA Court waiting area as long as you provide contact information and you remain within 10 minutes of the building.  Please inform the paralegal if you are leaving the building, so that the paralegal may notify you when your case is ready and you can return promptly. Harborview Medical Center, 325 Ninth Avenue, has both a cafeteria and a bistro.  There are coffee bars in the Ninth and Jefferson Building (the building where The ITA court is located) and the Norm Maleng Building, 410 Ninth Avenue.

You may bring reading materials, snacks, and a beverage.  Wireless internet access is available for small electronics or laptops.  Food and drinks are not allowed in the courtroom, but are allowed in the court waiting areas.

We understand that waiting can be frustrating, particularly when you are uncertain of when or if your testimony will be required.  We try to be as efficient as possible and appreciate your patience with the process.

 

The parties of the legal case are:

  • the patients,

  • the parents of juvenile patients, and

  • the hospitals.

The hospitals are represented by an attorney from the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.  It is the prosecutor’s job to develop and present the legal case for the need of involuntary commitment.  The prosecutor reviews the facts that led to the patient’s commitment and what has happened since the patient was hospitalized.  The prosecutor consults with the mental health professional from the hospital who is the expert witness in the court proceeding. 

Public defense attorneys are assigned to represent the patients at no cost.   The public defender supports and defends the rights of the patient.  The defense attorney represents the patient’s wishes in court, even if that may not be in the patient’s or the community’s best interest. This representation may include filing preliminary motions that are researched and argued prior to a hearing on the merits of a case.

The law has many specific requirements regarding the private and confidential nature of medical treatment records that dictate what information can be provided to others.  Unless the patient has signed a release of information for you, the hospital staff and attorneys may be unable to share particular details about a patient’s care with you.  However, hospital staff and the prosecutors are able to tell you about the general care and services provided to patients at the hospitals.
Many cases are resolved without a hearing if the patient and the hospital agree on a resolution.  This resolution may include the patient agreeing to stay for involuntary inpatient treatment, a continuance of the hearing, or the patient leaving the hospital for outpatient treatment.  In those instances, no one testifies in court on the day of the hearing. If the patient and the hospital agree on a continuance, you may be required to come back to court and provide testimony on the new court date.  If a resolution cannot be reached, the case may proceed to an evidentiary hearing where a judge makes a decision about the patient’s mental disorder and treatment.

In order for a case to be legally sufficient to proceed to a hearing, the prosecutor must be able to prove that the patient has a mental, emotional, or organic disorder.  The prosecutor must demonstrate that the mental disorder directly led to the patient being gravely disabled or a risk of harm to self, others, or the property of others.  Additionally, the prosecutor must show that involuntary treatment would be in the best interest of the patient and the community.

If on the day of the scheduled hearing, the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to prove the case, and all attempts of negotiation have been exhausted, the prosecutor will dismiss the case without prejudice and the patient will be released from the hospital.

Depending on the case, the patient and defense attorney may appear for the hearing via video from the hospital.  Sometimes the judge will appear for the hearing via video from another courtroom or chambers.  Other times, all parties will be physically present in the same courtroom for the hearing.

The judge will swear you in before you testify.  The prosecutor and defense attorney will each ask you questions.  They will ask about the events that led to the patient being detained and about how well or poorly the patient has done in the hospital.  It is important to always tell the truth.  Trials are controlled by the rules of evidence, which were developed to ensure fair trials. You must answer only the questions asked.  Do not volunteer information about which you have not been asked. Do not speak directly to the patient.   Listen to each question and answer as directly, completely, and honestly as you can.  Only state what you saw or heard, not what you assume or have been told by someone other than the patient.  If during your testimony either attorney says, “Objection” or “I object,” please stop talking and wait until the Judge overrules the objection or an attorney asks you another question. 

When both attorneys have finished questioning you, the judge will direct you to step down from the witness stand. This will conclude your court appearance.  You may watch the remainder of the hearing or leave the courtroom.

By appearing in court to testify, you are entitled to a fee of $10 (ten) plus a mileage payment.  These fees will be paid by check and delivered by mail after the hearing.  It can take up to six weeks to receive this check. Please note that witnesses will only receive payment if they testify.

The judge will only consider evidence from witnesses who testify in court.  The expert witness from the hospital will testify and the patient has a right to testify.  

 

If a witness to certain facts is unwilling or unable to testify in court, the judge will not be able to consider those facts.  The judge can only make a decision based on what is said in court and cannot rely on a person’s written statement as evidence. 
After the judge hears all of the testimony, the judge will decide if legal criteria has been met for the patient to stay in the hospital for involuntary treatment, be released into the community under a court order for outpatient mental health treatment, or be released out-right with no conditions for treatment.

After the 72-hour detention, if the patient agrees to involuntary hospitalization or if the judge hears the evidence and decides that the legal criteria have been met for involuntarily committing the patient, the judge will order that the patient receive treatment in a hospital for a period of not more than fourteen (14) days, including weekends and holidays.  If the hospital determines further treatment of the patient is necessary, a subsequent petition may be filed in court requesting an additional period of treatment for the patient.

 

If the patient is a juvenile, under the age of 18, the next petition filed by the hospital for continued care will be for a period up to 180 days.  The juvenile patient has a right to litigate this petition in front of a judge (a bench trial).

 

If the patient is an adult, the next petition filed by the hospital for continued care will be for a period up to 90 days.  Adults have the right to litigate this petition in front of a judge (a bench trial) or a jury.  At the end of the 90 day order of commitment, a hearing may be held to commit the patient for up to 180 days. 

 

At any time during the patient’s order of involuntary commitment, the treatment team may discharge the patient from the involuntary hold if the patient no longer presents a risk of serious harm (i.e. no longer meets the legal criteria for in-patient care).

If a patient is released into the community, and you feel that the patient’s behavior is dangerous and warrants an immediate response, please call the local authorities (911) for assistance.  If a patient’s behavior causes you concern for the safety of the patient or others, but the situation is not emergent, please call Crisis and Commitment Services (CCS) for crisis outreach.  CCS may be reached at 206-263-9200 (after hours: 206-461-3222).

 

If you are the family member of a patient in The ITA Court, the Family Advocate is available to provide information, resources and support through the court process. The Family Advocate can be reached at 206-477-8517 or in person at The ITA Court.

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