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Civil Commitment Extension Proceeding, Double Jeopardy

There is a Warren Zevon song, “Mr. Bad Example,” wherein he says he, as an attorney, he told all his clients to plead insanity. 

This tactic, while appropriate for a few defendants, should otherwise by resisted and avoided.  What is not known by the general public is that such a plea leads to a civil commitment of unknown length, where the person’s rights are unclear, as the following example epitomizes.

Prince Kurtiss Cheatham was in state prison in Shasta County for sales of a controlled substance.  In late 2011, he escaped and resisted / delayed / obstructed an officer after hearing nonexistent voices that led him to believe the police planned to shoot him as he was being caught after his escape.

After being returned to custody, he again attempted to escape the next day after hearing nonexistent voices because of an untreated schizoaffective disorder. 

He was then charged with escape and obstructing, delaying and resisting a police officer.  He pleaded insanity and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.  He was then committed to a state hospital.

In 2015, Cheatham was released from the state hospital’s custody and placed on supervised release.  However, for reasons that were unclear from the case summary, he “had a number of rule violations” and in 2019, he was again committed to a state hospital until 2021.  According to Cheatham, although he “got in trouble for” a “few things” while on supervised release, he instead returned to the state hospital because he “needed a medication change.”

On being back in the state hospital, he began taking a new medication to stabilize his mental health symptoms and, for the most part, the medication proved successful.  Although it did not stop his symptoms altogether, including hearing nonexistent voices, it left him better able to cope with his symptoms by ignoring them.

Shortly before Cheatham’s anticipated release from hospital custody, the local district attorney sought to extend his commitment under Penal Code § 1026.5.  Under this statute, a person found not guilty of a felony by reason of insanity may be committed to a state hospital for a period no longer than the maximum prison sentence for their offenses.  
However, this commitment may be extended if, because of a mental disorder, the person both represents a substantial danger of physical harm to others and has serious difficulty controlling their potentially dangerous behavior.

After two psychiatrists testified at trial that Cheatham met these criteria, a jury found the district attorney had proved the facts necessary to extend Cheatham’s commitment.  The psychiatrists explained that Cheatham engaged in “bizarre” behavior while in custody, such a standing up at times during group meetings for no apparent reason and for a brief period, smokes cigarettes through his nose.  He also asked other committees for money. 

Cheatham then filed an appeal of this jury finding.  The appeal was filed in the Third Appellate District Court in Sacramento.

Cheatham’s appeal argued two claims.  First, he contended that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support the jury’s findings.  Second, he argued that if the court reversed the verdict based on insufficiency of the evidence, the district attorney should be barred from trying the matter again under double jeopardy principles.

Although he acknowledged that double jeopardy principles generally apply only in criminal matters, he contends they also apply in proceedings to extend a 1026.5 commitment under Penal Code § 1026.5(b)(7), which states that a person in a proceeding to extend a commitment “shall be entitled to the rights guaranteed under the federal and State Constitutions for criminal proceedings.”

The Third Appellate District agreed with Cheatham on both points.  The court explained that no evidence suggested he had serious difficulty controlling potentially dangerous behavior because of his disorder.  The record, moreover, showed he never once again engaged in behavior dangerous to others because of his mental disorder.  Nor did he indicate that he might engage in this type of behavior.

The appellate court further agreed with Cheatham that the district attorney cannot attempt again to extend Cheatham’s commitment. 

We present this summary because proceedings to extend commitments are often regarded with no interest, apparently with a resigned sense of “well, the crazy guy is still crazy” and that mental illnesses cannot be overcome, but this can be a mistake.

For more information about civil commitment proceedings, please click on the following articles:
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