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Angiulo: Involuntary Commitment for Drug & Alcohol Abuse in MA

Monday, November 09, 2015


Watching a loved one suffer from the disease of addiction is painful.  We have all read the reports about the dramatic rise in heroin and opiate addiction along with related overdoses.  Many people wonder what they can do except watch their family and friends slip further into narcotic dependence. One statutory tool people have is an involuntary civil commitment pursuant to MGL c. 123, §35.

Typically, applicants seeking the commitment of a person go to the local district court and file the appropriate paperwork. According to the statute, the list of eligible filers include police officers, physicians, spouses, blood relatives, guardians or court officials.  That paperwork is known as a petition and, upon receipt, a judge will schedule a hearing.  The person who is the subject of the hearing, known as the respondent, will either be summonsed to appear or a warrant may be issued.      

Once the respondent has appeared, an examination by a physician, psychologist, or social worker must occur.  The next step is a full hearing before a judge where the court hears testimony from that medical professional, the petitioner, as well as the respondent.  The judge hearing the evidence then has to decide whether, or not, an involuntary commitment is warranted based on the evidence.  In order to answer that question, the court must determine whether the respondent:  1) is an alcoholic and/or substance abuser, and 2) that because of their addiction the respondent faces a likelihood of serious harm without intervention.

This statute certainly provides an important vehicle for helping those that cannot help themselves because of addiction.  What it does not do is provide sufficient definitions. A recent Supreme Judicial Court case, In the Matter of G.P., provides  helpful outlines for both petitioners and respondents in section 35 hearings. While the G.P. decision addressed both procedural issues and evidentiary questions, a few of the evidentiary issues are the focus of this column. 

In any court case, civil or criminal, there is a standard of proof that must be met in order for a plaintiff to be successful.  In a criminal case, the plaintiff is the Commonwealth and the standard that must be met is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  As the court explained in G.P., because of the temporary nature of the detention under section 35 the appropriate standard is “clear and convincing evidence” to support a finding.  To be clear and convincing, the judge hearing the evidence must believe it is highly probably true in order to rely on it.  

The related question is what evidence can be produced at that hearing. Typically, the rules of evidence control what can, and cannot, be introduced. With some important exceptions the rules do not apply at section 35 hearings. This means hearsay that has been found to be substantially reliable by the judge conducting the hearing can be relied upon.

The court also took the time to explain what evidence is required for a likelihood of serious harm to be present. To be clear, heroin addiction necessarily means poisoning oneself on a habitual basis.  But merely having an addiction is not enough.  The court explained that this harm must be imminent.  To be imminent, a person need not be in the middle of an overdose. They do, however, have to be facing serious harm in days or weeks not months or some undefined time in the future.  

The court looked at many more issues in the G.P. case and people with questions should consult legal counsel to get the answers they need.  What can be said is that section 35 commitments can certainly mean the difference between life and death for an addict that will no longer help themselves.  Like any other action by the state that limits individual liberty, however, such a commitment must be done in accordance with the law.  For concerned petitioners, be confident that the court receiving the request to commit a friend or loved one will apply the correct legal standards.   

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] 


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