The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the disorderly conduct conviction of a man who was involuntarily transported to the psychiatric wing of a hospital before scuffling with security officers. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Accime.
In June of 2011, the defendant was transported against his will to a local hospital’s psychiatric department pursuant to a Massachusetts law that allows for temporary involuntary medical treatment (and confinement) of individuals who pose a serious risk of harm as a result of mental illness. The defendant did not want to be at the hospital and he became disruptive when told he could be held for up to three days. At least four security guards responded to the room to which the defendant was confined (and one of the guards was armed with handcuffs and a baton). The guards tried to convince the defendant to take his medication. The defendant responded that he would not take any medication and said if anybody touched him, he was going to “fuck them up.” The defendant also warned he would harm anyone who pepper sprayed him. The defendant, who was large and muscular, took off his shirt and began pacing around the room, before taking on a “fighting” stance toward the guards. Between three and six guards then sprayed the defendant with pepper spray until he became subdued and allowed himself to be handcuffed. He was charged with disorderly conduct, threatening to commit a crime, and assault. At his trial in the Boston Municipal Court, a jury acquitted the defendant of the assault charge, convicted him of disorderly conduct, and could not reach a verdict on the threats charge. The judge sentenced the defendant to pay a fine and he appealed.
The disorderly conduct statute requires the Commonwealth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant purposefully caused public inconvenience, alarm, or annoyance (or recklessly created a risk of public inconvenience, alarm, or annoyance) by creating a physically offensive or hazardous condition with an act that did not serve a legitimate purpose. The defendant argued he did not purposefully (or recklessly) cause public inconvenience, alarm, or annoyance, and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed. The Court pointed out the defendant was transported to the hospital (and detained against his will) because somebody thought his mental illness was creating a dangerous situation for himself or others. Under those circumstances, the Commonwealth had not proven the defendant was aware of the consequences of his conduct and how it might have impacted others at the hospital. The Court also noted that the same conduct might be viewed differently depending on the setting in which it occurs. For example, conduct that might be tolerated in a mental health wing of a hospital might be criminal if it occurred in a public place, such as a courthouse. The Court’s commonsense opinion recognizes that someone who is potentially in the midst of a mental breakdown cannot be expected to act in a manner that would be expected if he was out and about in public. People who work in the psychiatric department of a hospital need to be prepared to deal with patients who are not acting appropriately.