2022 Mass. App. Div. 59

March 11, 2022 - August 12, 2022

Appellate Division Northern District

Court Below: District Court, Ayer Division

Present: Nestor, P.J., Karstetter & Spring, JJ.

Practice, Civil, Commitment, Statutory time limit.

Commitment order vacated where petitioner was held for observation past statutory time limit. Order entered in Ayer District Court by Guzman, J. and McGuiggan, J.

Eden D. Prendergast and Nathan Frommer for the petitioner.

Eric D. Beal for the respondent.

NESTOR, P.J. The Ayer District Court committed the respondent, K.M., to the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital ("WRCH") under G.L. c. 123, § 16(b). K.M. argues on appeal that the commitment must be vacated because she was held for observation before the hospital's filing of the petition in excess of the statutory time limit under G.L. c. 123, §§ 15 and 16. We agree.

Procedural history. On March 13, 2019, a criminal complaint issued against K.M. in the Ayer District Court charging her with criminal harassment and trespassing. On the same date, a second criminal complaint charged K.M. with criminal harassment and disturbing the peace. K.M. was arraigned on those two separate dockets on April 18, 2019. On that date, the court ordered a competency examination pursuant to G.L. c. 123, § 15(a).

On July 17, 2019, the court found K.M. to be not competent to stand trial. On July 29, 2019, a third criminal complaint issued against K.M. charging her with violation of an abuse prevention order, resisting arrest, and breaking and entering with intent to commit a misdemeanor. On July 30, 2019, the court ordered that she be hospitalized at the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center for an evaluation pursuant to G.L. c. 123, § 16(a).

On August 22, 2019, the court found that K.M. was not competent to stand trial and committed her to WRCH for up to six months under G.L. c. 123, § 16(b). This order was subsequently vacated on October 10, 2019, because, inter alia, K.M. had not been represented by counsel at the hearing on August 22, 2019.

On October 10, 2019, K.M. was brought to Nashoba Valley Hospital from Ayer District Court. K.M. was subsequently taken to Norwood Hospital pursuant to G.L. c. 123, § 12(a). K.M. remained hospitalized there, on a conditional voluntary basis, until she was discharged and brought to Ayer District Court on October 21, 2019. On that date, October 21, 2019, the court ordered K.M. to be examined for competency. K.M. was taken back to WRCH for examination under G.L. c. 123, § 15(b). That order was extended until November 29, 2019. On that date, she was found to be not competent to stand trial on all pending charges. On that same day, November 29, 2019, WRCH filed a petition for commitment pursuant to G.L. c. 123, § 16(b), which the Ayer District Court transferred to the Worcester District Court for a commitment hearing. A hearing on the pending petition was scheduled for December 11, 2019, at WRCH.

On December 16, 2019, a hearing was held on K.M.'s amended motion to dismiss. That motion was denied on December 17, 2019. The following day, December 18, 2019, the court allowed WRCH's G.L. c. 123, § 16(b) petition and ordered K.M.

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committed to WRCH for a period not to exceed six months. On December 26, 2019, K.M. filed a notice of appeal.

Discussion. General Laws c. 123, § 15(a) permits a court in "a criminal case," which doubts the competency of a criminal defendant to stand trial, to order an examination of the defendant. After the examination, the court may order that the defendant be hospitalized for a period not to exceed twenty days for observation and further examination "if the court has reason to believe that such observation and further examination are necessary in order to determine whether mental illness or mental defect have so affected a person that he is not competent to stand trial or not criminally responsible for the crime or crimes with which he has been charged" (emphasis added). G.L. c. 123, § 15(b). The observation period may be extended, "but in no event shall the period exceed forty days from the date of the initial court order of hospitalization." Id.

At the conclusion of "the examination" or "the observation period," the examining physician "shall forthwith give to the court written signed reports of their findings, including the clinical findings bearing on the issue of competence to stand trial or criminal responsibility. Such reports shall also contain an opinion, supported by clinical findings, as to whether the defendant is in need of treatment and care offered by the department." G.L. c. 123, § 15(c). If, based on the § 15(c) reports, the court is satisfied that the defendant is competent to stand trial, "the case shall continue according to the usual course of criminal proceedings; otherwise, the court shall hold a hearing on whether the defendant is competent to stand trial." G.L. c. 123, § 15(d).

General Laws c. 123, § 16 provides for hospitalization of criminal defendants who are incompetent to stand trial. Under § 16(a), the court with jurisdiction over the criminal matter may order that a defendant "who has been found incompetent to stand trial . . . be hospitalized at a facility for a period of forty days for observation and examination." Section 16 imposes a limit of fifty days of hospitalization for observation to determine capacity. G.L. c. 123, § 16(a) ("[T]he combined periods of hospitalization under the provision of this section and paragraph (b) of section fifteen [to determine capacity] shall not exceed fifty days.").

K.M. maintains that she was held for 110 days prior to WRCH's filing a petition for commitment and that, as a result, the December 18, 2019, order for civil commitment should be vacated. K.M. calculated that number of days in the following manner:

1. § 16(a) evaluation from July 17, 2019, to August 22, 2019 (24 days)

2. § 16(b) hospitalization from August 22, 2019, to October 10, 2019 (49 days)

3. § 15(b) evaluation from October 21, 2019, to November 26, 2019 (37 days)

WRCH urges this Appellate Division to accept the position that K.M.'s signing a conditional voluntary admission on October 11, 2019, causes a break in the calculation of the number of days. In essence, the clock resets to zero and begins anew with the § 15(b) commitment on October 21, 2019.

General Laws c. 123, § 16(a) reads, in part, that "the combined periods of hospitalization under the provision of this section and paragraph (b) of section fifteen [to determine capacity] shall not exceed fifty days." Questions of statutory interpretation will be reviewed de novo. Pembroke Hosp. v. D.L., 482 Mass. 346, 351 (2019). See also Meikle v. Nurse, 474 Mass. 207, 209 (2016), quoting Commerce Ins. Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., 447 Mass. 478, 481 (2006).

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Questions of a judge's decision to order a competency evaluation, however, are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. In accordance with the principles of statutory interpretation discussed infra, G.L. c. 123 grants the trial judge the discretion to order a combined period of evaluation pursuant to G.L. c. 123, §§ 15(b) and 16(a) that does not exceed fifty days. The amount of time a defendant can be hospitalized under the provisions of §§ 15(b) and 16(a) is clear and undisputed. Id.

Under well-established principles of statutory construction, statutory language "should be given effect consistent with its plain meaning and in light of the aim of the Legislature unless to do so would achieve an illogical result." Sullivan v. Town of Brookline, 435 Mass. 353, 360 (2001). Words are to be accorded their ordinary meaning and approved usage. See Pyle v. School Comm. of S. Hadley, 423 Mass. 283, 286 (1996). Where the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, it is conclusive as to the intent of the Legislature. Id. at 285.

Where the meaning of a statute is not plain from its language, familiar principles of statutory construction guide the court's interpretation. The intent of the Legislature is "ascertained from all its words construed by the ordinary and approved usage of the language, considered in connection with the cause of its enactment, the mischief or imperfection to remedied and the main object to be accomplished, to the end that the purpose of its framers may be effectuated." Industrial Fin. Corp. v. State Tax Comm'n, 367 Mass. 360, 364 (1975), quoting Hanlon v. Rollins, 286 Mass. 444, 447 (1934). In addition, provisions of a statute are construed in harmony with one another, recognizing that the Legislature did not intend internal contradiction. Locator Servs Group, Ltd. v. Treasurer & Receiver Gen., 443 Mass. 837, 859 (2005).

K.M. spent a total of 110 days under G.L. c. 123, §§ 15(b) and 16(a). We conclude that the complicated and lengthy procedural history involving multiple criminal dockets are one "combined" event. Multiple cases and dockets became inextricably intertwined making it unfair and unjust to treat them as separate, distinct events; doing so would violate the intent of the existing statutory framework.

The petition for commitment of K.M. was not filed in a timely manner. The December 18, 2019, order for civil commitment is vacated.