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In re C.K.

Supreme Court of Montana

March 28, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF: C.K., Respondent and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: February 8, 2017

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis And Clark, Cause No. CDI 15-73 Honorable Kathy Seeley, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Chief Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana.

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Madison L. Mattioli, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Leo John Gallagher, Lewis and Clark County Attorney, Luke Berger, Deputy County Attorney, Helena, Montana.


          Dirk M. Sandefur Justice.

         ¶1 C.K. appeals from an order of the Montana First Judicial District Court committing him to the Montana State Hospital (MSH) for involuntary mental health treatment pursuant to § 53-21-127, MCA. C.K. asserts that the District Court erroneously admitted and considered inadmissible hearsay referenced in the expert testimony of the examining mental health professional, Kim Waples. C.K. timely appealed. We affirm, addressing the following issue:

         Did the District Court abuse its discretion in admitting and considering hearsay statements referenced in the examining professional's hearing testimony?


         ¶2 C.K. was previously diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. Prior to the circumstances that led to the State's most recent petition, C.K. was taking prescribed medication and participating in the Program for Assertive Community Treatment (PACT), a treatment and support program for persons suffering from serious and disabling mental illnesses. At some point, C.K. quit PACT and stopped taking his prescribed medication.

         ¶3 Three witnesses testified at C.K.'s commitment hearing: his father, Sgt. Jeff Wilson of the Helena Police Department, and Waples. According to his father, C.K. slipped into a familiar pattern of aggressive and unsociable behavior when he quit PACT and stopped taking his medication. The weekend before the commitment hearing, C.K. woke his parents in the early hours of the morning while searching for his cellphone. C.K. thought he heard it ringing, but could not find it. He was so agitated that his mother felt it necessary to get out her pepper spray for protection. Worried that C.K. posed a danger to himself and others, his father took him to St. Peter's Hospital for an evaluation under his medical power of attorney.

         ¶4 C.K. was uncooperative and disruptive at the hospital. The St. Peters staff requested assistance from the Helena Police Department. Upon arrival, Sgt. Wilson and two other officers found C.K. in the E.R. waiting room talking nonsensically in the company of his parents and hospital staff. Sgt. Wilson knew C.K. from prior interactions and later testified that his behavior that night was out of character. Due to C.K.'s aggressive behavior and desire to leave the E.R., Sgt. Wilson was preparing to place him in protective custody until an E.R. doctor eventually convinced him to stay. As the officers escorted C.K. to an E.R. room, he asked Sgt. Wilson if his gun was loaded and also asked one of the other officers to give C.K. his gun.

         ¶5 Sgt. Wilson testified that C.K. acted aggressively toward the officers over the next four to five hours, staring them down and making lunging movements toward them. At one point while staring down an officer, C.K. spit into the palm of his hand and threateningly punched his other fist into the palm. Sgt. Wilson was present outside C.K.'s room until he was transferred to the Hays-Morris House, a therapeutic group home in Butte. As the officers prepared C.K. for transfer, Sgt. Wilson observed him raise his arm in a threatening manner towards one of the other officers.

         ¶6 Waples had previously worked with C.K. and was involved in his prior involuntary commitments. Upon notification from the hospital staff, she responded to the E.R. to evaluate him. Waples testified that he appeared agitated, paced around the room, and occasionally tried to leave until thwarted by the officers. Waples observed C.K.'s aggressive conduct toward the officers at the E.R. After answering a few questions, C.K. became uncooperative with Waples and refused to speak to her further. Waples ultimately arranged for C.K.'s transfer to the Hays-Morris therapeutic group home.

         ¶7 Pursuant to §§ 53-21-123 and -126(3), MCA, Waples prepared a preliminary mental health evaluation report for attachment to the State's initial involuntary commitment petition. The report summarized the night's events based on her own observations and information related to her by C.K.'s father, Sgt. Wilson, and an attending E.R. doctor. The report also included a verbatim passage from another mental health professional's prior report detailing C.K.'s mental health history.

         ¶8 At the commitment hearing, Waples testified about C.K.'s behavior based on her initial evaluation report and Hays-Morris House counseling and staff records. Over objection, Waples testified that C.K.'s irritable and threatening behavior continued after transfer to the Hays-Morris House. Waples specifically testified that C.K. had threatened to kill people and would violently bang on a protective plexiglass window so hard that the Hays-Morris staff were worried it might break. C.K. acknowledged that Waples could properly rely on the Hays-Morris records as a basis for her expert opinion but asserted that she could not properly reference or repeat the actual substance of the otherwise inadmissible hearsay. The District Court overruled the objection and allowed Waples to reference the substance of the third-party accounts of C.K.'s behavior as one of the bases for her opinion testimony. Based on C.K.'s diagnosed mental disorder, her personal observations of his behavior, the Hays-Morris records, and other third-party accounts referenced in her evaluation report, Waples recommended that the Court commit C.K. to the MSH for involuntary treatment.

         ¶9 At the close of the hearing, based on the testimony of Waples, C.K.'s father, and Sgt. Wilson, the District Court granted the State's petition and committed C.K. to the MSH for 90 days pursuant to § 53-21-127, MCA. In its findings of fact, the District Court generally referenced the personal observations of each witness as well as Waples' professional opinions and commitment recommendation. C.K. timely appealed, asserting ...

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