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Doe v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

May 11, 2017

JOHN DOE, Petitioners,


         Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Certified Great Public Importance Lee County Second District - Case No. 2D16-1328.

          Howard L. "Rex" Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Robert A. Young, General Counsel, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, Florida, for Petitioners

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida; and Caroline Johnson Levine, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, Florida, for Respondent

          Peter P. Sleasman and Kristen Cooley Lentz of Disability Rights Florida, Gainesville, Florida, for Amicus Curiae Disability Rights Florida

          Amy Singer Borman, General Counsel, Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, West Palm Beach, Florida, for Amicus Curiae Honorable Jeffrey J. Colbath, Chief Judge of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit

          PARIENTE, J.

         At the heart of this case is the right of an individual to have a judicial officer physically present at hearings held to determine whether the individual may be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or hospital pursuant to section 394.467, Florida Statutes (2016) ("the Baker Act"). Doe v. State, 210 So.3d 154 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016).[1] Although the panel of the Second District Court of Appeal expressed serious concerns over the practice, which a judicial officer instituted via e-mail, providing for the remote appearance of judicial officers at Baker Act hearings, only the dissent explained that this practice violates the basic constitutional principle that "a judge's physical presence is simply a constituent component of his or her ministerial duty to preside over a trial or evidentiary hearing." Id. at 168 (Lucas, J., dissenting). We agree that the process instituted in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit by a single judicial officer denied Petitioners their right to have a judicial officer physically present at their Baker Act commitment hearings.[2] Accordingly, we quash the Second District's decision below.[3]


         The case currently before this Court was initiated before the Second District through the filing of fifteen petitions by individuals seeking some form of relief in the court from an ad hoc procedure instituted by an individual county court judge via an e-mail, which stated: "Per Judge Swett he will be doing Baker Acts beginning this Friday via Polycom. Thank You." The procedure, instituted without notice, would allow the county court judge to preside over involuntary commitment hearings remotely.[4] Very little factual or procedural background exists because, as the Second District explained:

At the time the petitions at issue were filed with this court, the petitioners were awaiting their Baker Act hearings. The petitioners and the State, as respondent in these cases, have provided this court with the recent history giving rise to these petitions. The judge and magistrate currently assigned to preside over Baker Act hearings in Lee County had recently announced, via e-mail, that they would no longer be commuting to the receiving facilities to hold the statutorily required hearing in person. Instead, the judicial officers would preside remotely from the courthouse via videoconference equipment while the patients, witnesses, and attorneys would continue to be physically present at the receiving facility. It is this new procedure that the petitioners challenge, asking this court to require the judicial officers to be physically present for the hearings "as required by law."

Id. at 156. (majority) Ultimately, the Second District held:

In sum, while we question the wisdom of holding these hearings remotely, we conclude that the decision to preside over a Baker Act hearing remotely via videoconference equipment is within the discretion of the court. There is no ministerial, indisputable legal duty clearly established in the law which requires judicial officers presiding over involuntary inpatient placement hearings pursuant to section 394.467 to be physically present with the patients, witnesses, and attorneys.

Id. at 159.

         Judge Wallace wrote a concurring opinion, in which he expressed his belief that the manner in which the trial judge exercised his authority to conduct involuntary placement hearings was unwarranted, and conducting such hearings remotely is inappropriate and ill-advised. Id. (Wallace, J., concurring). He also suggested that the appropriate rules committees of The Florida Bar promptly draft and submit rules delineating the types of proceedings that a judge may conduct remotely by videoconference and those that judges may not Id. (Wallace, J, concurring) Initially, Judge Wallace took issue with the implementation of videoconferencing through the use of e-mail, rather than through an administrative order from the Chief Judge Id. at 160-61 (Wallace, J, concurring) Judge Wallace argued that conducting Baker Act hearings remotely was ill-advised for three reasons: (1) potential difficulties, including equipment malfunctions and the inability of counsel to approach the bench for private conversations; (2) the circuit court disregarded the opinion of a subcommittee appointed by this Court in 1997 to conduct a comprehensive study on the administration of the Baker Act and its impact on patients, in which it recommended against conducting such hearings via videoconference; and (3) the circuit court disregarded an attempt by this Court to use a similar procedure for juvenile hearings that ultimately failed Id. at 163-67 (Wallace, J, concurring).

         Additionally, Judge Lucas wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing both that judicial officers have a ministerial duty to preside over Baker Act hearings in person and that the majority improperly looked to procedural rules as a potential basis for granting mandamus relief. Id. at 166-67 (Lucas, J., dissenting). As to the first point, Judge Lucas reasoned:

In gleaning the extent of the judicial duty at issue here, we can, and should, look to the constitutional right of access to courts, precedent that expressly tethers a judge's physical presence to a constitutional right, and the entirety of tradition and history. These bedrock principles, drawn together, fill the dearth of authority that my colleague, Judge Wallace, apprehends. But if there is any silence in the law on this issue, it must surely be ascribed to the fact that a judge or magistrate's personal attendance at trial has been the assumed norm for as long as there have been courts and judges. In my view, a judge's physical presence is simply a constituent component of his or her ministerial duty to preside over a trial or evidentiary hearing.

Id. at 168.

         THE BAKER ACT

         This case involves proceedings used to involuntarily commit mentally ill individuals under section 394.467, Florida Statutes. Section 394.467, also known as the Baker Act, governs the involuntary inpatient placement of persons with mental illness.[5] Subsection (1) lays out specific criteria the State must prove to order the involuntary inpatient placement of an individual, including that the individual has either refused or is unable to consent to voluntary treatment, that the individual is either incapable of surviving alone or that there is a substantial likelihood that in the near future the individual will inflict serious bodily harm on himself or herself or others, and that all available less-restrictive treatment alternatives that would offer an opportunity for improvement of the individual's condition have been judged inappropriate. § 394.467(1)(a)-(b), Fla. Stat. (2016).

         The Baker Act also requires an evidentiary hearing to be conducted for involuntary inpatient placement. See § 394.467(2), (6). Recognizing the need for immediate action, the statute specifies that "[t]he court shall hold the hearing on involuntary inpatient placement within 5 court working days, unless a continuance is granted." § 394.467(6)(a)1. Additionally, "[w]ithin 1 court working day after the filing of a petition for involuntary inpatient placement, the court shall appoint the public defender to represent the person who is the subject of the petition, unless the person is otherwise represented by counsel." § 394.467(4). The statute requires, "Except for good cause documented in the court file, the hearing must be held in the county or the facility, as appropriate, where the patient is located, must be as convenient to the patient as is consistent with orderly procedure, and shall be conducted in physical settings not likely to be injurious to the patient's condition." § 394.467(6)(a)2. (emphasis added). Finally, the statute allows for a magistrate, rather than a judge, to preside at the hearing:

The court may appoint a magistrate to preside at the hearing. One of the professionals who executed the petition for involuntary inpatient placement certificate shall be a witness. The patient and the patient's guardian or representative shall be informed by the court of the right to an independent expert examination. If the patient cannot afford such an examination, the court shall ensure that one is provided, as otherwise provided for by law. The independent expert's report is confidential and not discoverable, unless the expert is to be called as a witness for the patient at the hearing. The testimony in the hearing must be given under oath, and the proceedings must be recorded. The patient may refuse to testify at the hearing.

§ 394.467(6)(a)3.[6]

         It is clear that the Legislature recognized that individuals subject to the Baker Act are among the most vulnerable in our society. The Baker Act has built-in safeguards, including the requirement that hearings be conducted at the institution where the patient is placed and in a manner not likely to be injurious to the patient's condition.

         The State is correct that section 394.467 does not specifically require that Baker Act hearings be presided over by a judicial officer who is physically present. However, it is not unsurprising that the statute does not include such a requirement because judicial officers have always presided over evidentiary hearings in person. Additionally, the rights of the patients subject to involuntary commitment hearings are not limited to the protections provided for in the statute. Rather, in light of the serious deprivation of liberty associated with involuntary commitment hearings, important constitutional rights also govern these hearings.


         "[A] deprivation of liberty by commitment to a mental institution cannot be accomplished without due process of law." Jordan v. State, 597 So.2d 352, 353 (Fla. 1st DCA 1992) (citing O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 580 (1975); Shuman v. State, 358 So.2d 1333 (Fla. 1978); In re Beverly, 342 So.2d 481 (Fla. 1977)). "The gravity of the matters considered at a Baker Act hearing requires the trial court to conduct the proceedings in a fair and neutral manner." Id. Moreover, "[t]hose whom the state seeks to involuntarily commit to a mental institution are entitled to the protection of our Constitutions, as are those incarcerated in our correctional institutions." Shuman, 358 So.2d at 1335. "Because involuntary commitment is a substantial deprivation of liberty at which fundamental due process ...

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