The Department of Public Defense (DPD) provides representation to people in King County who face civil commitment to a psychiatric facility by the county’s Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA) Court. It is one of the busiest courts in King County: Each year, we represent approximately 4,000 clients who are involuntarily detained and have the right to representation in their hearings before a Superior Court judge or commissioner.
DPD has 2 units dedicated to this civil practice—small teams comprised of attorneys, mitigation specialists, and paralegals. As in other practice areas, our attorneys advocate for their clients based on their clients’ stated wishes. Occasionally, our attorneys will seek the appointment of a guardian ad litem to “stand in the shoes” of the client when the client is unable to provide direction to their attorney.
Under state law, a person brought to a hospital by the police or a designated crisis responder for an involuntary hold must have a hearing before a judge or commissioner within 120 hours. If the petitioner, usually a hospital represented by the King County Prosecutor's Office, demonstrates that the person being detained is "gravely disabled" or is a threat to themselves, to others, or to property, the person may be hospitalized for up to 14 days or placed on a 90-day less restrictive order, which means they are not hospitalized but are required to comply with conditions and subject to court surveillance. After a 14-day hold, hospitals can seek a 90-day hold, at which point the client can request a jury trial.
Our attorneys represent clients at all of these stages in the process, bringing skill, compassion, and a client-centered commitment to this fast-paced system. They develop an ability to read medical charts; they become knowledgeable about psychological disorders; they understand the nexus between the criminal legal system and the involuntary commitment system. Our mitigation specialists are also engaged in the process, working to find housing, benefits, or specialized programs that can help clients. Paralegals provide important legal support to the defense teams.
Meanwhile, DPD continues to advocate for a different kind of response to mental health issues in our community. Our goal is to see resources diverted away from an expensive, court-based system that strips people of their liberty and dignity and to instead put resources into community-based programs that can provide housing, health care, and other supports to people living with chronic mental health disorders.