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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. ALAN LEON HELMS (03/27/86)

filed: March 27, 1986.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
ALAN LEON HELMS, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Order Entered March 25, 1985 in the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County, Criminal Division, at No. 228 October, 1980.

COUNSEL

Lawrence J. Hracho, Reading, for appellant.

Charles M. Guthrie, Jr., Assistant District Attorney, Reading, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Wickersham, Beck and Hoffman, JJ.

Author: Beck

[ 352 Pa. Super. Page 68]

After a hearing on March 1, 1985, the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County ordered the continued commitment of appellant Alan Leon Helms to Wernersville State Hospital for one year of involuntary treatment pursuant to the Mental Health Procedures Act ("Act"), Act of July 9, 1976, P.L. 817, No. 143, as amended, 50 P.S. § 7101 et seq. Appellant now contends that the evidence presented at the hearing was insufficient to support the commitment, and that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to issue its order. We disagree, and therefore affirm the order.

On February 25, 1980, appellant attacked his next door neighbor without provocation by beating him on the head with an old rifle. The neighbor died from the injuries he suffered. The court found appellant to be a paranoid schizophrenic, deemed him incompetent to stand trial, and committed him to Farview State Hospital for treatment. After regaining his competence, appellant stood trial on charges of criminal homicide, and was acquitted on January 20, 1982 because of lack of criminal responsibility. See 50 P.S. § 7404. Again, the court found appellant to be severely mentally disabled and committed him to Farview State Hospital in accordance with Sections 7304(g)(2) and 7305 of the Act. Appellant was subsequently involuntarily recommitted on three occasions and was ultimately transferred to Wernersville State Hospital in June of 1984, where he now remains.

[ 352 Pa. Super. Page 69]

The most recent petition to recommit the appellant for up to one year of involuntary treatment is made pursuant to Sections 7304 and 7305 of the Act. A mental health review officer ("MHRO") held a hearing on the petition on November 15, 1984, and recommended that the appellant be treated involuntarily for another sixty (60) days. The court then ordered and held a de novo hearing on March 1, 1985. The court subsequently entered its order committing the appellant to Wernersville for a full year. This appeal followed.

We will first address appellant's contention that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and that its order is therefore invalid.*fn1 Appellant argues that no provision of the Act allows the trial court to review sua sponte an MHRO's recommendations. Consequently, he maintains that the court of common pleas has no authority to review an MHRO's certification unless "a person made subject to treatment" petitions the court for such a proceeding in accordance with Section 7109(b) of the Act.*fn2

The Act squarely places responsibility for its administration in the courts. See e.g. 50 P.S. §§ 7304 and 7305. The underlying legislative policy recognizes that "[s]ince an individual's freedom of choice and liberty are at stake, it is essential that judges remain the decision-maker[s] . . . ." Myers, Involuntary Civil Commitment of the Mentally Ill: A System in Need of Change, 29 Vill.L.Rev. 367, 426 (1983-4).

[ 352 Pa. Super. Page 70]

While the Act provides for MHROs to assist the court, see 50 P.S. § 7109(a), such assistance in no way diminishes the authority of the court.*fn3 This court has previously established that MHROs are functionaries of the court of common pleas:

[The] mental health review officer is the equivalent of a master; he may make recommendations upon which the court may act; he may issue certifications upon which the court may respond by thereafter issuing a court order, and he may serve the judicial system within each county, within limitations, as the court of that county may so designate. However, the mental health review officer is not a judge, or the equivalent of a judge, of the Court of Common Pleas.

In Re Chambers, 282 Pa. Super. 327, 331, 422 A.2d 1140, 1142 (1980) (emphasis added).

The court's authority is underscored by the fact that an MHRO's recommendations for extended involuntary commitment under Sections 7304 and 7305 of the Act are not final appealable orders, and cannot be implemented without an order from the court. Id., 282 Pa. Super. at 331, 422 A.2d at 1142; see also In re Bishop, 282 Pa. Super. 67, 422 A.2d 831 (1980) (per curiam). In addition, as the above-quoted passage from Chambers indicates, recommendations of MHROs do not bind the court, which may or may not act upon them in issuing its order.

Although Section 7109(b) specifically designates a "person made subject to treatment" as entitled to initiate a review, the Act as a whole, and Section 7109(a) in particular, indicate that common pleas court judges have jurisdiction to initiate as well as review legal proceedings relating to commitment:

[ 352 Pa. Super. Page 71]

Legal proceedings concerning extended involuntary emergency treatment under section 303(c), court-ordered involuntary treatment under 304 or 305 or transfer hearings under section 306, may be conducted by a judge of Page 71} the court of common pleas or by a mental ...


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