Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



The civil commitment of mentally ill individuals presents the legal system with an intractable question: When should the law deprive someone of the fundamental right to liberty based on a prediction of future dangerousness? Advocates of both increased and decreased levels of civil commitment offer compelling case studies to help resolve the question. The former point to high profile events like the Virginia Tech shooting, in which mandatory incapacitation of the perpetrator at the first sign of mental illness could have prevented a senseless tragedy. The latter highlight the lives of individuals like Kenneth Donaldson, whose father had him committed on scanty evidence of "delusions." He was held in a mental institution for fifteen years despite the absence of proof that he posed a threat to himself or society. Cases like these demonstrate that civil commitment statutes must strike a balance that not only protects the populace from dangerous individuals but also allows harmless individuals to retain their civil rights.

Civil commitments cause "massive curtailment[s] of liberty." Hospitalized patients must remain within the institution, often with limited freedom inside the building. Even patients receiving outpatient treatment must report to the hospital regularly, severely restricting their liberty. Further, these patients may not have the option to refuse unwanted examinations or treatment, and their commitment period can last indefinitely. In addition to these immediate concerns, individuals who have been committed bear the social and legal stigma of past hospitalization after their release. Because involuntary civil commitment results in such a significant deprivation of liberty, its use invokes constitutional due process protections.