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In re Heather R.

Supreme Court of Alaska

January 29, 2016

In the Matter of the Necessity for the Hospitalization of HEATHER R.

Appeal from the Superior Court No.3AN-14-02936 PR of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Paul E. Olson, Judge.

James B. Gottstein, Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellant.

Robert H. Schmidt, Law Offices of Robert Schmidt, PC, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Laura Fox, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for Amicus Curiae State of Alaska.

Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Fabe, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices. [Winfree, Justice, not participating.]

OPINION

BOLGER, JUSTICE.

I. INTRODUCTION

Several members of a condominium homeowners association petitioned the superior court to order a woman who owned a condominium in the association to undergo an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric examination. After conducting a statutorily required ex parte screening investigation, which did not include an interview with the woman in question, the superior court master determined that there was probable cause to believe that she was mentally ill and presented a likelihood of serious harm to others. The woman now appeals the evaluation order, claiming that the ex parte investigation violated due process and that the master failed to properly conduct the statutorily required screening investigation. Although this appeal is technically moot, we reach the merits of these claims under the public interest exception. We vacate the evaluation order because the superior court master failed to conduct the interview as part of the screening investigation required by statute; we do not reach the due process question.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

On December 5, 2014, a petition was filed on behalf of the Seacliff Condominium Association (Seacliff) for an order requiring Heather R., [1] the owner of a condominium in Seacliff, to undergo an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric evaluation pursuant to AS 47.30.700.[2] The petition alleged that Heather was a threat to "herself . . . and her neighbors" based on "[y]ears of confrontation, threats, aberrant and widely swinging behavior suggesting drug use, " including "taking pictures inside people's houses, inability to have normal social interactions, [and] lying [in] wait to confront neighbors."

Later that day a magistrate judge, acting in the capacity of superior court master, held an ex parte evidentiary hearing on the issue of probable cause. The master heard testimony on Heather's behavior from Seacliff's property manager and four Seacliff residents. At the conclusion of the hearing, the master determined that there was probable cause to believe (1) Heather had a mental illness that was "negatively affecting her ability to control her actions" and (2) this presented "a likelihood of harm to other people." The master recommended ordering involuntary hospitalization for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation. The superior court subsequently adopted the master's recommendation. Heather was then taken to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for evaluation, but she was discharged within 72 hours because medical personnel determined she did not meet the criteria for continued hospitalization or commitment.

Heather appeals the evaluationorder. Sheargues that theorder violated due process under the U.S. and Alaska Constitutions and that the master failed to conduct a statutorily required screening investigation prior to issuing the order.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This court applies its independent judgment to questions of law, which include mootness issues, [3] constitutional questions, [4] and statutory construction.[5] When reviewing questions of law, this court adopts "the rule of law ...


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