Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court ()

An intellectually disabled man involuntarily institutionalized as a boy after committing a sexual assault wants the Florida Supreme Court to find the commitment process unconstitutional.

Identified only as J.R., the petitioner’s case was referred to the Supreme Court by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The state justices were posed three questions by the Eleventh Circuit:

• Does the support plan for an institutionalized person require the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to consider the propriety of continued involuntary commitment under state law?

• Must the agency ask a circuit court to release an involuntarily committed subject if that person’s circumstances change?

• Does state law provide meaningful periodic review that complies with federal due process?

In 2000, J.R. was charged with a felony assault in Lee County. He was found incompetent to stand trial and turned over in 2001 to the Department of Children and Family Services. In 2004, the criminal charge was dismissed because the court had no evidence he would ever be competent.

He was then committed to a nonsecure services facility and given vocational training. Since 2007, J.R. has been in a group home environment.

In 2011, he filed a federal lawsuit after the agency refused to petition the state court to review his involuntary status. J.R.’s attorney, Peter Sleasman of the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project in Newberry, asked U.S. District Judge William Stafford in Tallahassee to find the law governing involuntary placement violates due process.

Stafford denied the motion, finding the law implies an existing due process structure. The Eleventh Circuit was inclined to agree but was not comfortable with a ruling based in implications and deferred to the Supreme Court for clarification.

Justice Peggy Quince on Wednesday questioned the relevancy of the annually updated agency staff-generated support plan. In its defense, the agency relied heavily on the support plans for committed persons.

Assuming J.R. or anyone in his position improves to a level sufficient to change the involuntary status, how would the support plan reflect that, Quince asked.

Sleasman said that is the heart of the problem. The plan may be accurately updated, but the recommendations do not necessarily ever get to a decision maker.

“Assume it said, ‘Whatever’s being done is no longer appropriate,’ ” Quince said, “That’s not given to anyone?”

“He may be moved to a less restrictive group home,” Sleasman answered.

However, whatever occurs between the support plan coordinator and the agency is not clear.

“What is abundantly clear is there is no requirement,” Sleasman said. “The Eleventh Circuit talks about requirements, not about what may be done.”

The justices appeared reluctant to make an outright declaration that the law violates due process. They debated on whether the lack of explicit periodic review language could be resolved by either having the agency amend its policy or having the court create a judicial procedure.

“Couldn’t the court, through its rulemaking, solve a deficiency that may exist in the statute,” Justice Barbara Pariente asked.

Sleasman agreed that would probably resolve the issue.

However, attorney for the state, Diane DeWolf from the Office of Solicitor General in Tallahassee, asked the court to do nothing.

DeWolf argued any change would tamper with Legislative intent. She insisted the support plan process is sufficiently comprehensive and emphasized the agency has no incentive to keep involuntarily held clients.

“(ADP) has a waiting list of 20,000 people,” DeWolf said. “There’s no incentive to keep someone that no longer needs or is no longer eligible for services.”

However, DeWolf could not answer to Quince’s satisfaction the question of what follow-up there is after a support plan is updated. DeWolf did note that a case manager gets input from third-parties such as guardians and attorneys.

Justice R. Fred Lewis questioned DeWolf’s argument that no due process cases involving agency clients have reached the appellate level in the 40 years the law has been in effect.

“Maybe they have been languishing without representation. I don’t know,” Lewis said.

“But they’re entitled to representation,” DeWolf said.

Pariente recognized the agency acted in good faith, but added that the DCF also acts in good faith. Yet, children still fall through the cracks.

Pariente then commented on how the law devotes so much specificity at the stage of establishing involuntary commitment. But that specificity is not there when it comes to continuing jurisdiction of the court.

The state’s answer brief to the court on a circuit judge’s continuing jurisdiction is short and blunt: “Because these placements all qualify as nonsecure residential services placements, no court action is needed. They instead can all be accomplished through the support planning team’s obligatory annual review. The circuit court only needs to become involved in a full discharge from all residential services.”