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In re Vencil

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

January 19, 2017

IN RE: NANCY WHITE VENCIL APPEAL OF: PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE

          ARGUED: September 14, 2016

         Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court at No. 472 MDA 2014 dated July 21, 2015 Reversing the Order of the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, at No. 12-665 dated February 24, 2014

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          DONOHUE, JUSTICE

         Before this Court, on discretionary review, is the appeal of the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP") from the decision of the Superior Court holding that section 6111.1(g)(2) of the Uniform Firearms Act, which provides for review by a court of common pleas of a request for the expungement of the PSP's records of an individual's involuntary civil commitment under section 7302 ("302") of the Mental Health Procedures Act ("MHPA"), requires a de novo hearing at which clear and convincing evidence must be presented in support of the 302 commitment.[1] We conclude that the Superior Court erred, as the plain language of section 6111.1(g)(2) requires a court of common pleas to review only the sufficiency of the evidence to support the 302 commitment, limited to the information available to the physician at the time he or she made the decision to commit the individual, viewed in the light most favorable to the physician as the original decision-maker to determine whether his or her findings are supported by a preponderance of the evidence. Because the Superior Court reviewed the trial court's decision through an improper lens, we vacate its decision and remand to that court for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         Pursuant to the MHPA, a person for whom there are "reasonable grounds to believe" that he or she is "severely mentally disabled and in need of immediate treatment" may be subjected to an involuntary examination by a physician. 50 P.S. § 7302(a). When an individual is brought in for an examination and determination of his or her need for emergency mental health treatment, the physician must determine, within two hours of the individual's arrival, whether the person is in fact "severely mentally disabled" and "in need of immediate treatment." 50 P.S. § 7302(b).

         An individual is "severely mentally disabled" if "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." 50 P.S. § 7301(a). What constitutes a "clear and present danger" is also defined by statute:

(1) Clear and present danger to others shall be shown by establishing that within the past 30 days the person has inflicted or attempted to inflict serious bodily harm on another and that there is a reasonable probability that such conduct will be repeated. If, however, the person has been found incompetent to be tried or has been acquitted by reason of lack of criminal responsibility on charges arising from conduct involving infliction of or attempt to inflict substantial bodily harm on another, such 30-day limitation shall not apply so long as an application for examination and treatment is filed within 30 days after the date of such determination or verdict. In such case, a clear and present danger to others may be shown by establishing that the conduct charged in the criminal proceeding did occur, and that there is a reasonable probability that such conduct will be repeated. For the purpose of this section, a clear and present danger of harm to others may be demonstrated by proof that the person has made threats of harm and has committed acts in furtherance of the threat to commit harm.
(2) Clear and present danger to himself shall be shown by establishing that within the past 30 days:
(i) the person has acted in such manner as to evidence that he would be unable, without care, supervision and the continued assistance of others, to satisfy his need for nourishment, personal or medical care, shelter, or self-protection and safety, and that there is a reasonable probability that death, serious bodily injury or serious physical debilitation would ensue within 30 days unless adequate treatment were afforded under this act; or
(ii) the person has attempted suicide and that there is the reasonable probability of suicide unless adequate treatment is afforded under this act. For the purposes of this subsection, a clear and present danger may be demonstrated by the proof that the person has made threats to commit suicide and has committed acts which are in furtherance of the threat to commit suicide; or
(iii) the person has substantially mutilated himself or attempted to mutilate himself substantially and that there is the reasonable probability of mutilation unless adequate treatment is afforded under this act. For the purposes of this subsection, a clear and present danger shall be established by proof that the person has made threats to commit mutilation and has committed acts which are in furtherance of the threat to commit mutilation.

50 P.S. § 7301(b). If the examining physician determines that the person is "severely mentally disabled and in need of immediate treatment, treatment shall be begun immediately" and continue until "there is no longer a need for immediate treatment, " up to 120 hours. 50 P.S. § 7302(b), (d).

         The Uniform Firearms Act prohibits a person who has been involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment under section 302 from possessing, using, controlling, selling, transferring, manufacturing or obtaining a license to possess a firearm. 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(c)(4). Section 6111.1(g)(2) provides one avenue to lift the firearm restrictions that result from a 302 commitment. It states:

A person who is involuntarily committed pursuant to section 302 of the Mental Health Procedures Act may petition the court to review the sufficiency of the evidence upon which the commitment was based. If the court determines that the evidence upon which the involuntary commitment was based was insufficient, the court shall order that the record of the commitment submitted to the Pennsylvania State Police be expunged. A petition filed under this subsection shall toll the 60-day period set forth under section 6105(a)(2).[2]

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6111.1(g)(2) (footnote added; footnote citing section 302 omitted).

         With this legal background in mind, we turn to the facts of the case at bar. The record reflects that on April 1, 2003, Nancy White Vencil ("Vencil") appeared at the emergency room of Holy Spirit Hospital seeking medical treatment for physical ailments -- including pulmonary problems, burning eyes and swollen nostrils -- that she stated were caused by her exposure to chemical smells.[3] History and Physical Examination, 04/02/2003, at 1. She was observed to be crying throughout her interaction with hospital staff and requested that they test her saliva for chemicals. Id.

         Vencil reported that she developed a medical condition in July 2002 after being near Turtle Wax. Id. Thereafter, she began to live in hotels, as the new carpet and vinyl in the home she shared with her husband aggravated her symptoms. Id. She reported moving repeatedly from one hotel to another to escape chemical smells, as well as an inability to eat or drink anything that was in plastic. Id.

         David Diehl, a crisis intervention worker at the hospital, met with Vencil in the emergency room. During her interaction with Mr. Diehl, she reportedly disclosed having suicidal ideations because of her condition. Id. Vencil initially agreed to voluntarily seek inpatient mental health treatment but changed her mind prior to signing the paperwork. Id. She subsequently fled the hospital "in an emotionally distraught state, and drove in an erratic and dangerous fashion with her headlamps off … at risk for striking another motor vehicle, causing a traffic accident." Id.

         Based upon his observations and Vencil's expression of suicidal thoughts, Mr. Diehl believed that Vencil was "severely mentally disabled" in that she posed a "clear and present danger" to herself as defined by section 7301(b)(2)(ii) ("301"). Application for Involuntary Emergency Mental Health Examination and Treatment at 1, 3. He therefore filed an application pursuant to section 302(a) of the MHPA for Vencil to undergo an involuntary psychiatric examination by a physician, which the mental health delegate granted. Id. at 1-4; History and Physical Examination, 04/02/2003, at 1; see also 50 P.S. ยง 7302(a) (setting forth the procedure for applying for involuntary emergency psychiatric examination). Vencil's friend and sister both reportedly expressed concern to Mr. Diehl, stating that Vencil "was mentally unstable and should ...


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