New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. Photo: Tim Roske

The court proceedings of an individual who enters an insanity plea and is found to have had a dangerous mental disorder are not required to be sealed, as opposed to other records related to one’s mental health, the Court of Appeals said in a decision Tuesday.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote in a unanimous opinion by the court that allowing those records to be sealed automatically would work against the intent of the state Legislature to make judicial documents and proceedings available to the public.

“In balancing the privacy rights of a defendant with the public’s right to know how dangerous mentally ill acquittees are managed by the courts, the legislature eschewed an automatic sealing requirement of the court record,” DiFiore wrote. “We refuse to disturb that balance today.”

The defendant in the case, identified only as James Q., was represented by Brent Stack, an attorney with Mental Hygiene Legal Services. MHLS is an agency in each of the state’s four judicial departments that provides legal counsel and advocacy for individuals receiving treatment for a mental illness or disability.

A representative from MHLS said Tuesday morning that the agency is “not allowed to speak to the press.”

The case against the defendant was brought nearly a decade ago by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, which argued against the records being sealed before the Court of Appeals last month. Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said in a statement on Tuesday that his office was “pleased” with the court’s decision.

“We are pleased with the Court’s unanimous decision today. By refusing to allow blanket sealings, the Court upheld the importance of open judicial proceedings without impeding on the defendant’s right to privacy,” Sini said. “Today’s result protects the public and the defendant’s rights.”

The defendant was alleged by prosecutors to have violently assaulted his girlfriend in 2009 after she tried to end their relationship, which was sexual. He was 27 years old at the time. She was 16.

According to DiFiore, the defendant placed her in a chokehold, repeatedly punched her in the face, kicked her, and threatened her with a knife. She was able to escape and call the police.

The defendant was charged with rape, criminal possession of a weapon, assault and other related offenses. He pleaded insanity and was committed to a mental health facility by the state after the court found him to have a dangerous mental disorder, which is defined in statute as posing a physical danger to himself or others.

After the initial commitment period, the state asked the court to approve a series of orders that would require the defendant to remain in the facility due to his mental disorder. The court approved each of them, none of the records from which were sealed.

After one of those requests in 2015, the defendant moved to seal the entire court record from that proceeding. That would have included the state’s request to retain him at the facility, the affidavit from a psychiatric examiner supporting that request, and the court’s approval.

Some of his information had already been sealed, including the defendant’s diagnoses, treatment plan and details on the psychiatric examiner’s report.

His motion was rejected by the trial court, which said the documents should remain public because they related to legal proceedings, rather than the defendant’s treatment. DiFiore agreed with that analysis in the opinion Tuesday.

The decision was based partly on a legislative scheme enacted nearly four decades ago in New York that governs how state courts will manage defendants who plead not responsible by reason of mental illness or disability.

Those defendants are defined in three ways, or “tracks,” as DiFiore called them: those found to have a dangerous mental disorder, those who are mentally ill but not dangerous, and those who are neither dangerous nor mentally ill. The defendant in this case was considered to be on the first “track.”

The same section of the state’s criminal procedure law also says that if a defendant is committed to state custody after such a plea, they “shall have the rights granted to patients under the mental hygiene law.” That’s where the defendant’s argument came from to have his record sealed.

A provision of the state’s mental hygiene law says that a patient’s clinical record will be kept confidential, and consequently unavailable to the public. The defendant argued that his court proceedings should be considered part of his clinical record, but DiFiore rejected that argument.

“The clinical record created separately by the facility in accordance with Mental Hygiene Law §33.13 cannot encapsulate the discrete record of a defendant’s court retention proceedings, created independently by the court pursuant to CPL 330.20, simply because information of defendant’s legal status, essentially derived from the court record, is repeated in the clinical record,” DiFiore wrote.

In other words, the high court held that court proceedings are separate from what’s included in the defendant’s clinical record, even if there’s some overlap in information between the two. Such proceedings would have been sealed if the mentally ill or disabled person wasn’t considered dangerous, DiFiore wrote, but that wasn’t the case here.

“In short, the legislature provided no automatic sealing requirement of an entire court record in either CPL 330.20 or the Mental Hygiene Law for a track one insanity acquittee and defendant cites no authority for such an obligation,” DiFiore wrote.

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