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08/28/97 JAMES C. WOODSIDE

August 28, 1997

IN RE: JAMES C. WOODSIDE, APPELLANT


Appeal from the Order in the Court of Common Pleas of York County, Civil Division, No. 122 MH 1996. Before BRILLHART, J.

Before: Tamilia, J., Hudock, J. and Cercone, P.j.e. Opinion BY Tamilia, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tamilia

OPINION BY TAMILIA, J.:

Filed August 28, 1997

James C. Woodside appeals from the September 16, 1996 Order extending by twenty (20) days his period of involuntary emergency mental health evaluation and treatment pursuant to the Mental Health Procedures Act, 50 P.S. § 7101 et seq.

This case developed as a result of a petition filed on September 3, 1996 by appellant's estranged wife, Rachel Woodside, alleging that appellant was in need of involuntary emergency medical evaluation. In support of this petition, Mrs. Woodside, a mental health therapist, averred that appellant had not been taking his antidepressant medication, had withdrawn from therapy and had engaged in verbally aggressive behavior and fits of rage. She also stated that on August 24, 1996, appellant had appeared at the former marital residence with a handgun strapped to his waist. Finally, Mrs. Woodside stated in the petition that appellant had called her friend, Jeannie Grimes, on September 1, 1996 and stated to Ms. Grimes that, "I might as well get a rifle with a scope to get rid of the problem. The problem being my soon to be ex-wife." (R. 63.) Moreover, according to Mrs. Woodside, on September 3, 1996 (the day the petition was filed), her neighbor had observed appellant shopping in a sporting goods store and, upon checking with the store, Mrs. Woodside discovered that appellant had purchased a rifle scope. Based upon this petition, appellant was involuntarily committed to the York Hospital Emergency Room for emergency mental health evaluation and treatment on September 4, 1996. A subsequent physician's examination conducted the same day determined that appellant was "severely mentally disabled and in need of treatment." (R. 68.) Another physician's examination conducted on September 6, 1996 concluded that appellant "continues to be severely mentally disabled and in need of treatment." (R. 71.)

Thereafter, on September 10, 1996, a mental health hearing officer conducted proceedings on the hospital's petition to extend appellant's commitment by an additional 20 days. Following the hearing, the hearing officer recommended an additional 20 day inpatient commitment. Unfortunately, a mechanical failure prevented the transcription of testimony from that hearing. Therefore, on September 16, 1996, the trial court conducted another hearing at which the testimony from the September 10th hearing was reconstructed through the notes and recollection of counsel. Appellant, his estranged wife, the mental health hearing officer and a social worker from York Hospital also attended the hearing and contributed to the reconstruction of the record. This record included the testimony of Mrs. Woodside that in the days immediately preceding appellant's commitment, he had made threatening gestures toward her, got "in [her] face" and poked her in the shoulder with his finger (N.T., 9/16/96, p. 4). According to Mrs. Woodside, appellant "was increasingly unpredictable [and] would go into rages, screaming and yelling profanities at her." Id. Mrs. Woodside also testified that in the days preceding his commitment, appellant had repeatedly engaged in bizarre behavior, such as buying identical copies of tools and guns and 20 pairs of shoes on one occasion. (N.T. at 7.) Appellant also stopped maintaining his personal hygiene. Id. Mrs. Woodside further testified that she cleaned up the motel room in which appellant had been living and found numerous guns, ammunition and handcuffs. (N.T. at 4.) Although she had seen guns over the course of her marriage to appellant, Mrs. Woodside stated that she had "never seen any of these things before." Id. The record also established that Mrs. Woodside had obtained a protection from abuse order against appellant, a hearing for which had not yet been held. (N.T. at 6.) Mrs. Woodside further testified that she found a rifle scope "in the box that looked new" among appellant's possessions after he had been committed (N.T. at 16). Jeannie Grimes testified at the hearing, via telephone, and stated that appellant had called her on September 1, 1996, three days before his commitment, and stated that he was "very angry at his soon-to-be-ex-wife" and that he "might as well get a scope and a rifle and get rid of the problem, my soon-to-be-ex-wife." (N.T. at 14.) Based upon the phone call, Ms. Grimes, who had been a friend of the Woodsides for 15 years, "was floored, I was petrified ... I couldn't stand to hear any more. I was so shaken. My first concern was for his wife's safety. Second, I was concerned about his state of mind." (N.T. at 15-16.) After the call, Ms. Grimes contacted Mrs. Woodside to relay appellant's threat. *fn1 Doctor Bryan Stevens, who had conducted an examination of appellant after his commitment, also testified that appellant had admitted purchasing a rifle scope within 30 days of his commitment, although appellant claimed he would use it for hunting (N.T. at 17-18). Dr. Stevens diagnosed appellant with "adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct, probable major depression" and testified that appellant's conduct toward his estranged wife was caused by these illnesses (N.T. at 18). Based on his evaluation, Dr. Stevens recommended extending the involuntary commitment of appellant because he would be likely to repeat his behavior if left untreated (N.T. at 19). Appellant also testified at the hearing and stated that all of his weapons were for hunting, and that he did not threaten or intend to harm his wife in any way (N.T. at 24). As to Mrs. Woodside's allegation that appellant had poked her, he conceded that "I may have emphatically poked her, but no big physical contact." Id. He also stated that he carried a pistol to the former marital residence on August 24, 1996, because he did not want to leave it at the motel room in which he was staying (N.T. at 27). Following the presentation of this testimony, by Order dated September 16, 1996, the trial court directed that appellant's involuntary commitment be extended by 20 days. This appeal followed in which appellant presents two claims. *fn2

Appellant first argues that his initial involuntary commitment was improper because the petition filed by his estranged wife did not meet the statutory requirements for such commitment. Appellant also claims the Order of September 16, 1996 extending the commitment for 20 days was illegal because the petition for such an extension was not filed within 120 hours of commitment, as required by statute. *fn3

Initially, although the issue of mootness has not been raised, we note that this case presents a live controversy despite the fact that appellant's commitment has long since expired. This is so "because involuntary commitment affects an important liberty interest, and because by their nature most involuntary commitment orders expire before appellate review is possible." Commonwealth v. Blaker, 293 Pa. Super. 391 n. 1, 446 A.2d 976, 977 n. 1 (1981). "Were we to dismiss such appeals as moot, the challenged procedure could continue yet its propriety would evade our review." In Re Ann S., 279 Pa. Super. 618, 621 n. 2, 421 A.2d 370, 372 n. 2 (1980). Thus, this appeal is properly before us.

Turning to the first issue, we note that the propriety of appellant's initial commitment is determined by 50 P.S. § 7301, which provides in relevant part:

§ 7301. Persons who may be subject to involuntary emergency examination and treatment

(a) Persons Subject.-- Whenever a person is severely mentally disabled and in need of immediate treatment, he may be made subject to involuntary emergency examination and treatment. A person is severely mentally disabled when, as a result of mental illness, his capacity to exercise self-control, judgment and discretion in the conduct of his affairs and social relations or to care for his own personal needs is so lessened that he poses a clear and present danger of harm to others or to himself.

Id., ยง 7301(a). The Act further defines those circumstances in which a person presents "a clear and present danger of harm to others or to himself." Since appellant's commitment was not premised on the presentation of any danger to himself, we confine our review to the question of whether appellant was ...


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