Donahue v. Rhode Island Dept. of Mental Health

Citation632 F. Supp. 1456
Decision Date17 April 1986
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 84-0411-S.
PartiesKenneth DONAHUE and Nomad Lawson, Plaintiffs, v. RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH, RETARDATION AND HOSPITALS, By and Through its Director, Thomas D. ROMEO, the State of Rhode Island, By and Through its Treasurer, Roger Begin, and John Doe, Richard Roe and Peter Poe, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island


Hutton & Hickey, Edward C. Roy, Roney & Labinger, Lynette Labinger, Providence, R.I., for plaintiffs.

Deborah P. Clarke, Legal Counsel R.I. Dept. of Mental Health, Retardation & Hospitals, Cranston, R.I., and Arlene Violet, Atty. Gen., Richard B. Wooley, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., Providence, R.I., for defendants.


SELYA, District Judge.

This is a civil action originally brought by Kenneth Donahue against the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals (MHRH), the state of Rhode Island, and several unidentified state employees. MHRH is a part of the executive branch of state government. For ease in reference, the defendants, collectively, will be referred to as "MHRH" or "the state."

Donahue's amended complaint is in two counts. He seeks, first, a declaration that the Rhode Island statute governing the emergency commitment of alcoholics, R.I. Gen. Laws § 40.1-4-11 (Supp.1985), transgresses the guarantees of the federal Constitution. His second statement of claim is more personalized: he avers in substance that, in the course of his commitment by MHRH under the statute, various state actors failed to honor rights secured to him by the law and by the regulations promulgated thereunder, thereby violating his constitutionally protected liberty interests and paving the way for an award of money damages. Nomad Lawson subsequently filed virtually identical claims against the state.1

After certain preliminary skirmishing (not material here), this court on September 13, 1985 bifurcated the claims and ordered a preliminary hearing, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), as to count I of the amended complaint. Following an extended briefing period, oral arguments were entertained on December 6, 1985. Thereafter, a supplementary hearing was held, at which time a variety of documentary evidence anent the circumstances of the plaintiffs' commitments was introduced into evidence. Decision having been reserved, this opinion comprises the court's findings and conclusions concerning the constitutionality vel non of the statute at issue.


In order to put this matter into proper perspective, it is necessary first to examine the methodology which the Rhode Island General Assembly has adopted for dealing governmentally with the problems of alcoholism in modern society.

The rudiments of the statutory framework were set in place some thirty-five years ago. See P.L.1951, ch. 2755, §§ 1-22. The enactment was substantially revised and augmented some twenty years later, see P.L.1972, ch. 130, § 1, and renamed as the Alcoholism and Intoxication Treatment Act RIAITA). Id. at § 2. This reformulation followed upon the heels of, and was plainly influenced by, the publication of the proposed Uniform Alcoholism and Treatment Act, 9 U.L.A. 57-110 (1971) (Uniform Act). The RIAITA was further amended at various intervals, e.g., P.L. 1973, ch. 186, § 1; P.L.1973, ch. 196, § 1; P.L.1977, ch. 217, § 1; P.L.1979, ch. 364, §§ 1-2, and was further modified in 1984. See P.L.1984, ch. 122, § 1. In that same legislative session, the RIAITA was reenacted effective May 4, 1984, see P.L.1984, ch. 81, § 4, and is now codified as R.I.Gen. Laws §§ 40.1-4-1 to 40.1-4-19 (1984 & Supp.1985). It is this most current version of the RIAITA which the plaintiffs challenge in this proceeding.

The tone of the Act is reflected in its declaration of policy, which announces:

The problem of alcoholism, with its attendant effects upon the economic condition of alcoholics and those dependent upon them, and the substantial physical deterioration brought about by the misuse of alcohol, has, as shown by the studies, become more and more a major concern of government. Those who, through the misuse of alcohol, adversely affect their health and their economic independence have in recent years increased in number. This chapter is designed to provide proper treatment for those who have been habitually misusing alcohol as a beverage. It is the further policy of this state that alcoholics and intoxicated persons may not be subjected to criminal prosecution because of their consumption of alcoholic beverages but rather should be afforded a continuum of treatment in order that they may lead normal lives as productive members of society.

R.I.Gen.Laws § 40.1-4-1.

The Act then spells out a litany of defined terms, id. at § 40.1-4-2, several of which are of critical importance at this juncture:

(1) "Alcoholic" means a person who habitually lacks self-control as to the use of alcoholic beverages, or uses alcoholic beverages to the extent that his health is substantially impaired or endangered or his social or economic function is substantially disrupted;
* * * * * *
(6) "Intoxicated person" means a person whose mental or physical functioning is substantially impaired as a result of the use of alcohol;
(7) "Incapacitated by alcohol" means a person, who as a result of the use of alcohol is intoxicated to such an extent that he is unconscious or has his judgment otherwise so impaired that he is incapable of realizing and making a rational decision with respect to his need for treatment;
* * * * * *
(9) "Treatment" means the broad range of emergency, outpatient, intermediate, and inpatient services and care, including diagnostic evaluation, medical, psychiatric, psychological, and social service care, vocational rehabilitation and career counseling, which may be extended to alcoholics and intoxicated persons.

R.I.Gen.Laws § 40.1-4-2(1), (6), (7), (9).

MHRH is given broad powers to plan, establish, maintain, administer, supervise, and coordinate programs for the care and treatment of alcoholics and intoxicated persons, e.g., R.I.Gen.Laws § 40.1-4-3, and is charged with substantial duties in these respects. E.g., id. at § 40.1-4-4. These duties embrace the establishment of "a comprehensive and coordinated program for the treatment of alcoholics and intoxicated persons," id. at § 40.1-4-6(1), designed to include, inter alia, "emergency treatment." Id. at § 40.1-4-6(2)(a). MHRH sets standards applicable to both public and private treatment facilities, id. at § 40.1-4-7, and is responsible for periodic inspections of all such institutions. Id. Subject to a handful of legislatively-decreed standards, MHRH is empowered to promulgate rules governing the acceptance of persons into approved treatment programs. Id. at § 40.1-4-8. One such legislative directive requires that, to the extent "possible, a patient shall be treated on a voluntary rather than an involuntary basis." Id. at § 40.1-4-8(1)(a).

The RIAITA then proceeds to discuss in considerable detail the voluntary care of alcoholics, R.I.Gen.Laws § 40.1-4-9, treatment and services for intoxicated persons and those incapacitated by alcohol, id. at § 40.1-4-10, and a rubric governing certain (less controversial) aspects of the involuntary commitment of alcoholics, essentially in "nonemergency" situations. Id. at § 40.1-4-12. Interleaved among these substantive provisions is the statute which is at issue here. Its full text follows:

(1) An intoxicated person who (a) has threatened, attempted, or inflicted physical harm on himself/herself or another and is likely to inflict physical harm on himself/herself or another unless committed, or (b) is incapacitated by alcohol, may be committed to an approved public treatment facility for emergency treatment. A refusal to undergo treatment does not constitute evidence of lack of judgment as to the need for treatment.
(2) The certifying physician, spouse, guardian, or relative of the person to be committed, or any other responsible person, may make a written application for commitment under this section, directed to the administrator of the approved public treatment facility. The application shall state facts to support the need for emergency treatment and be accompanied by a physician's certificate stating that he has examined the person sought to be committed within two (2) days before the certificate's date and facts supporting the need for emergency treatment.
(3) Upon approval of the application by the administrator in charge of the approved public treatment facility, the person shall be brought to the facility by a peace officer, health officer, the applicant for commitment, the patient's spouse, the patient's guardian, or any other interested person. The person shall be retained at the facility to which he was admitted, or transferred to another appropriate public or private treatment facility, until discharged under subsection (5).
(4) The administrator in charge of an approved public treatment facility shall refuse an application if in his opinion the application and certificate failed to sustain the grounds for commitment.
(5) When, on the advice of the medical staff, the administrator determines that the grounds for commitment no longer exist, he shall discharge a person committed under this section. No person committed under this section may be detained in any treatment facility for more than ten (10) days. If a petition for involuntary commitment under § 40.1-4-12 has been filed within the ten (10) days and the administrator in charge of an approved public treatment facility finds that grounds for emergency commitment still exist, he may detain the person until the petition has been heard and determined, but no longer than ten (10) days after filing the petition.
(6) A copy of the written application for commitment and of the physician's certificate, and a written explanation of the person's right to counsel, shall be given to the person

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