Standard for Expungement of Record of Involuntary Commitment under Mental Health Procedures Act

In Re: B.W., 2019 WL 5682614 (Pa. Super.  2019)(unreported), allocatur granted June 2, 2020, appeal docket 14 WAP 2020

The Mental Health Procedures Act (MPHA), 50 P.S. § 7302 (Section 302), provides the legal process by which physicians may involuntarily commit an individual for up to 120 hours upon finding “reasonable grounds to believe” he or she is “severely disabled and in need of immediate treatment” based on a finding that the person presents “a clear and present danger of harm to others or to himself,” which may be demonstrated by proof that the person has made threats of harm and has committed “acts in furtherance of the threat to commit harm.” 50 P.S. § 7301.

Involuntary commitment under section 302 precludes an individual from possessing a firearm or a license to carry a firearm.  The Uniform Firearms Act in turn provides that the record of involuntary commitment may be expunged if the court determines that the evidence upon which the involuntary commitment was based was insufficient. 18 Pa.C.S.A. 6111.1(g)(2).  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that “a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to support a 302 commitment presents a pure question of law, and the court’s sole concern is whether, based on the findings recorded by the physician and the information he or she relied upon in arriving at those findings” the decision by the physician is supported by a preponderance of the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the physician who made the commitment decision. In re Vencil, 152 A.3d 235, 237 (Pa. 2017).  

The question for review in this case is whether voicing a plan to commit harm at the time of commitment constitutes an act “in furtherance of the threat to commit harm” as required under the MPHA.  B.W., a utility lineman, was involuntarily committed under Section 302 after he drove himself to his doctor’s office where he complained of feelings of anxiety and experiencing conflict with co-workers and union representatives.  The treating physician noted that B.W. was “[m]aking credible threats of violence against a co-worker but is here for help” and recommended evaluation for commitment. Slip op. at 2. A second physician who applied for an involuntary emergency examination for B.W. recorded that he was present “while patient stated that he would strangle another person to death. He then gave the name of the intended victim. Patient stated that he was not sure when or where he would perform this act, but he would do it the next time he saw the person.” Id.  A third physician who performed the examination pursuant to the application for involuntary emergency examination recorded that B.W. “is homicidal toward his coworker and admits to stating that he would strangle him… is very angry and agitated, danger to others. Not receptive to voluntary admission[.]” Id. Based on the examination B.W. was involuntarily committed. After release, B.W. applied to have the record of commitment expunged.

The trial court found B.W.’s testimony in support of expungement credible, but denied the petition to expunge, reasoning:

[W]e find that the evidence known by the physician at the time, as contained in the contemporaneously-created record, supports the conclusion that [Appellant] presented a clear and present danger to others, requiring a 302 commitment. We must give deference to the physician, as the original factfinder, as the physician examined and evaluated [Appellant], and was able to observe his demeanor.

Slip Op. at 8.

The Superior Court reversed, focusing on the issue of what constitutes an “act in furtherance” of the threat to commit harm, and opining that a statement of intent to perform a harmful act is not itself an act “in furtherance”:

Like the trial court, both Appellees reference Appellant’s statement that he would perform a harmful act as the act itself. See Blair County Department of Human Service Brief at 4 (“In this case[,] Appellant not only made a threat to inflict serious bodily injury or death, he had a very explicit plan to carry out the threat[.]”); PSP Brief at 6 (“[Appellant] made a specific threat toward an identified individual and indicated his intent to carry it out the next time he was able.”). While PSP … [references] Appellant’s identification of his intended victim and manner in which he would carry out the threat, PSP Brief at 7, the threat itself, without more, does not constitute an act in furtherance of the threat.

Slip Op. at 12.

In dissent, Judge Lazarus explained that in her view the law does not require an act in furtherance of a threat to commit harm, that the majority erred by failing to defer to the treating physicians, and that the trial court correctly refused expungement under the applicable legal standard:

I believe the majority erred by finding an act in furtherance of a threat to commit harm a necessary condition, rather than a sufficient condition, for involuntary commitment under section 302 of the MHPA. Even assuming, arguendo, such evidence is required, I believe the majority further erred by failing to afford B.W.’s treating physicians the deference due under In re Vencil, 152 A.3d 235 (Pa. 2017)—binding precedent, which, if properly applied, would require this Court to conclude B.W.’s involuntary commitment was supported by sufficient evidence.

Dissent slip op. at 1.

The Supreme Court granted allocator to decide:

Whether the development of a plan satisfies the requirement for an act in furtherance of a threat to kill a co-worker for purposes of an involuntary commitment under § 302 of the Mental Health Procedures Act?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.