Conservatorship of Roulet

Decision Date06 February 1979
Citation152 Cal.Rptr. 425,23 Cal.3d 219,590 P.2d 1
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 590 P.2d 1 Conservatorship of the Person and the ESTATE of Mabel ROULET. May Morrison HEAP, as Conservator, etc., Petitioner and Respondent, v. Mabel ROULET, Objector and Appellant. L.A. 30730.

Glen Mowrer, Jr., Public Defender, Gilbert W. Lentz and T. Richard Savidge, Deputy Public Defenders, for objector and appellant.

Paul Halvonik, State Public Defender, Charles M. Sevilla, Chief Asst. State Public Defender, Quin Denvir, Public Defender, Richard E. Shapiro and Paul D. Fogel, Deputy State Public Defenders, Sheldon Portman, Public Defender, Estella W. Dooley, Deputy Public Defender, Samuel L. Williams and Richard J. Kamins, Los Angeles, as amici curiae for objector and appellant.

George P. Kading, County Counsel, and Marvin Levine, Deputy County Counsel, Santa Barbara, for petitioner and respondent.

Keith C. Sorenson, Dist. Atty., San Mateo, and Joseph H. Clasgens III, Deputy Dist. Atty., as amici curiae for petitioner and respondent.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

In this case, the court must decide if proof beyond a reasonable doubt and a unanimous jury verdict are the proper standards to apply before a conservator can be appointed under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act's (LPS Act) grave disability provisions, 1 with the power to involuntarily commit a conservatee to a state mental institution for up to a year.


In December 1974, respondent, the Public Guardian of the County of Santa Barbara, was named conservator of the person and estate of appellant, Mabel Roulet. Respondent was given the power to confine appellant in a mental institution. Pursuant to respondent's instructions, appellant was placed in Camarillo State Hospital. In November 1975, respondent petitioned under sections 5350 and 5361 to reestablish the conservatorship over appellant for an additional year because of appellant's alleged continuing grave disability due to a mental disorder.

At the time of the recommitment proceeding, appellant was 59 years old. According to the conservatorship reevaluation form filled out by physicians at Camarillo State Hospital, appellant could not provide for her basic needs because "(s)he is so confused, and disorganized that she is unable to make daily living plans. If she has some funds she will waste (Sic ) on cigarettes and drinking." The form indicated that appellant was unwilling to accept treatment voluntarily because ". . . she feels she is not mentally ill."

Pursuant to subdivision (d) of section 5350, appellant demanded a jury trial on the issue of whether she was gravely disabled. At trial appellant requested that the jury be instructed that a conservator could be appointed for her only if the jury unanimously agreed, beyond a reasonable doubt, that appellant was gravely disabled as the result of mental disorder. The trial judge refused this instruction. Instead he instructed the jury they need only apply the preponderance of the evidence standard and that only 9 of the 12 jurors must agree in order to reach a verdict. Subsequently the jury found appellant to be a gravely disabled person. 2

The trial court entered an order reestablishing the conservatorship and granted respondent numerous powers including the power to institutionalize appellant (i. e., to continue her commitment), and to require her to receive treatment related specifically to remedying her "grave disability." (§ 5358.) The court further ordered that appellant lose the privilege of possessing a driver's license and the right to enter into contracts without the consent and approval of the conservator. (§ 5357).

This appeal followed. The Court of Appeal reversed the order reestablishing the conservatorship, unanimously holding that the reasonable doubt standard must be applied. Thereafter, this court granted the conservator's petition for hearing.


In criminal trials, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is an obstacle the state places in its own way, in order to lessen the possibility of convicting an innocent person. This procedural constraint is eloquent testimony to the high stakes involved a defendant's freedom and reputation hinge on the verdict. In People v. Burnick (1975) 14 Cal.3d 306, 319-322, 121 Cal.Rptr. 488, 535 P.2d 352, this court explicitly recognized that civil commitment to a mental hospital, despite its civil label, threatens a person's liberty and dignity on as massive a scale as that traditionally associated with criminal prosecutions. One has only to imagine the horror experienced by a competent person falsely committed as mentally disturbed in order to appreciate that freedom is openly on trial at a civil commitment proceeding. Therefore, the Burnick court ruled that proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies to mentally disordered sex offender proceedings.

The logic of Burnick is equally applicable here. The appointment of a conservator for appellant and her subsequent confinement in a mental hospital against her will deprived appellant of freedom in its most basic aspects and placed a lasting stigma on her reputation.


The extent to which liberty is at stake can be ascertained by reviewing exactly what awaits an individual subjected to a grave disability proceeding. When the establishment of a conservatorship is recommended, the court may appoint a temporary conservator who has the power to keep the individual in a treatment facility for up to six months pending the outcome of a trial on the issue of grave disability. (§§ 5352.1, 5353.) If the individual is found to be "gravely disabled," the court then appoints a conservator and specifies the powers which the conservator will possess. (§§ 5357, 5358.) One of the principal powers which the court may grant a conservator is the right to place a conservatee in an institution. Unlike a person who is found to be imminently dangerous to others and can be confined for a maximum of 90 days before a new court order must issue §§ 5300-5306), 3 the person who is found to be gravely disabled can be involuntarily confined in a mental hospital for up to a year by his or her conservator, with the possibility of additional year-long extensions. (§§ 5358, 5361.) The period of temporary conservatorship is not included in the one-year period. (§ 5361.) If the conservator petitions to reestablish an expiring conservatorship, the court may order the conservatee confined past the termination date until renewal proceedings are completed. (§ 5361.) In effect, these statutes assure in many cases an unbroken and indefinite period of state-sanctioned confinement. "The theoretical maximum period of detention is Life as successive petitions may be filed . . . ." (In re Gary W. (1971) 5 Cal.3d 296, 300, 96 Cal.Rptr. 1, 4, 486 P.2d 1201, 1204, emphasis added.)

This court has previously recognized that inmates of state mental hospitals face serious restrictions on their freedom. In In re Roger S. (1977) 19 Cal.3d 921, 929, 141 Cal.Rptr. 298, 569 P.2d 1286, the court noted that involuntary confinement is a direct form of physical restraint. And "(i)t is beyond dispute that a principal ingredient of personal liberty is 'freedom from bodily restraint' (citation) . . . ." (Id., at p. 927, 141 Cal.Rptr. at p. 301, 569 P.2d at p. 1289.) In People v. Burnick, supra, 14 Cal.3d 306, 323, 121 Cal.Rptr. 488, 499, 535 P.2d 352, 363, a federal court of appeals opinion was cited to emphasize " 'the indisputable fact that civil commitment entails a " massive curtailment of liberty" in the constitutional sense. (Citation.) The destruction of an individual's personal freedoms effected by civil commitment is scarcely less total than that effected by confinement in a penitentiary.' "

Again, in People v. Olivas (1976) 17 Cal.3d 236, 244-245, 131 Cal.Rptr. 55, 60, 551 P.2d 375, 380, this court stated, "While wards confined in institutions of the Youth Authority may often experience greater freedom within the institution than individuals confined in state prisons or Mental hospitals (citation), they are nevertheless incarcerated against their will, a most basic form of personal liberty deprivation." (Emphasis added.)

Respondent fails to distinguish these previous decisions of this court. Instead, respondent takes false comfort in the fact that appellant's commitment is only a "civil" confinement for remedial purposes. However, these are mere labels. Appellant's stay in Camarillo State Hospital was not any less involuntary because the state called her incarceration by one name rather than another. As the United States Supreme Court has authoritatively written, "commitment is a deprivation of liberty. It is incarceration against one's will, whether it is called 'criminal' or 'civil'." (In re Gault (1967) 387 U.S. 1, 50, 87 S.Ct. 1428, 1455, 18 L.Ed.2d 527.) In a subsequent opinion, the Supreme Court reiterated that "civil labels and good intentions do not themselves obviate the need for criminal due process safeguards . . . ." (In re Winship (1970) 397 U.S. 358, 365-366, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1073, 25 L.Ed.2d 368.)

This court has also rejected reliance on a civil label. "(B)ecause involuntary commitment is incarceration against one's will regardless of whether it is called 'civil' or 'criminal' (citation), the choice of standard of proof implicates due process considerations which must be resolved by focusing not on the theoretical nature of the proceedings but rather on the actual consequences of commitment to the individual." (People v. Thomas (1977) 19 Cal.3d 630, 638, 139 Cal.Rptr. 594, 598, 566 P.2d 228, 232; see also People v. Burnick, supra, 14 Cal.3d 306, 315-316, 121 Cal.Rptr. 488, 494, 535 P.2d 352, 358; In re Gary W., supra, 5 Cal.3d 296, 307, 96 Cal.Rptr. 1, 9, 486 P.2d 1201, 1209 ("the California Legislature has recognized that the interests involved in civil commitment proceedings are no less fundamental than those in...

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