U.S. v. Sahhar

Decision Date29 October 1990
Docket NumberNo. 88-5413,88-5413
Citation917 F.2d 1197
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. John George SAHHAR, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Carlton F. Gunn, Deputy Federal Public Defender, Los Angeles, Cal., for defendant-appellant.

Thomas H. Bienert, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty., Los Angeles, Cal., for plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before NELSON, BRUNETTI and KOZINSKI, Circuit Judges.

KOZINSKI, Circuit Judge:

Under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4246, an individual accused of federal crimes and found incompetent to stand trial may be committed indefinitely if his release would create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another or serious damage to property. We consider whether this statute violates the fifth and sixth amendment's guarantees of equal protection, due process and trial by jury.


On September 18, 1987, John George Sahhar was indicted under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 871(a) for making a threat against the President of the United States. At the government's request, the district court held a competency hearing pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4241(a). The court found Sahhar incompetent to stand trial and ordered him committed to the custody of the Attorney General for evaluation and treatment in accordance with section 4241(d). Findings & Order, Nov. 19, 1987.

The court held another competency hearing on July 29, 1988. Sahhar presented no evidence at the hearing. Dr. Donald R. Butts, the psychiatrist in charge of Sahhar's evaluation and treatment at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, submitted a report concluding that Sahhar was a paranoid schizophrenic. Dr. Butts also testified that Sahhar was "in a neurotic psychiatric state and ... uncooperative, incoherent and very bellicose and threatening." R.T. 7/29/88 at 19. According to Dr. Butts, Sahhar was "admitted to the most secure unit" at Springfield and placed "under very close observation ... for his own protection and for the protection of staff members." Id. at 14. In spite of these measures, Sahhar was verbally abusive to staff members, id. at 24-25, tore up his cell, id. at 21, and on at least one occasion had to be placed in restraints. Id. at 19. Dr. Butts concluded that Sahhar was not competent to stand trial and unlikely to become so within a reasonable period of time. The district court found Dr. Butts's testimony persuasive, see id. at 38-39, and recommitted Sahhar for further psychiatric evaluation.

Soon thereafter, the acting warden at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island, California filed a certificate requesting an involuntary commitment hearing pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4246(a). The court conducted a section 4246 hearing on October 13, 1988, at which the government submitted a report prepared by Dr. Jeanne Hetzel, Chief of Psychology Services at Terminal Island. Dr. Hetzel noted in her report that Sahhar was "overtly psychotic" and "hostile," and had "attempt[ed] to assault staff and other inmates." E.R. at 70. She concluded that Sahhar presented a substantial risk to others, and listed ten specific reasons for her conclusion, among them: Sahhar's behavior appeared to be directed by aggressive and violent fantasies; he made no attempt to conform his behavior to acceptable norms; he had shown no guilt or acceptance of responsibility for his actions; he attempted to assault both staff and inmates; and there was no indication that he would comply with outpatient treatment. E.R. at 70-71.

Dr. Hetzel also testified at length about Sahhar's "aggressive behavior" while at Terminal Island, including numerous specific acts evincing his dangerousness. R.T. 11/13/88. 1 Like Dr. Butts, she concluded that Sahhar suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and was more likely to act aggressively than unaffected persons. Id. at 58. Dr. Hetzel stated that Sahhar's refusal to take medication made treatment in a non-custodial setting infeasible. Id. at 19-22. While recognizing that some of Sahhar's behavior appeared "clinically exaggerated" and that his "bark seemed to be much worse than his bite," id. at 51-52, Dr. Hetzel found that defendant "presented a substantial risk to the safety of other people." Id. at 15.

Sahhar presented no expert testimony or reports. The only witness he called was his father, George Sahhar, who testified that defendant had never assaulted him and that he did not believe his son was dangerous. George Sahhar did admit, however, to calling the police on at least one occasion when his son became angry, id. at 68, 70-71, and testified about three incidents where his son became angry in his presence: when Sahhar tried to throw a refrigerator at his brother, when he dropped a whiskey bottle to the floor and kicked a telephone because his father would not give him money, and when he broke a window by throwing a cup through it because his father again would not give him money.

At the close of the hearing, the court found that Sahhar was suffering from a mental disease or defect and that his release would present a substantial risk of harm. The court then committed him to the Attorney General's custody for hospitalization and treatment in a suitable facility pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4246(d). The court further directed the Attorney General to seek a state placement for Sahhar and provide a report on his condition every six months. Sahhar currently is undergoing treatment at a state-operated facility in Arizona, but remains within the Attorney General's jurisdiction.


Sahhar raises a number of constitutional challenges to his commitment under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4246: that it denies him equal protection by creating a different standard for commitment for those charged with federal crimes than for the general population; that it violates the fifth and sixth amendments by permitting commitment without a jury trial; and that it denies him due process by permitting commitment without specific findings that he had recently committed dangerous acts. 2 Before we address the merits of these challenges, we consider briefly the statutory scheme under which federal criminal defendants may be subject to involuntary commitment.

The treatment of mentally incompetent federal criminal defendants is governed by 18 U.S.C. Secs. 4241-4247. Of particular concern here are sections 4241 and 4246, providing for the treatment of persons found incompetent to stand trial. Section 4241(a) provides that whenever the court has reasonable cause to believe a defendant is suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense, the court may conduct a hearing to determine the defendant's competency. If the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is incompetent, it shall commit him to the custody of the Attorney General for treatment. 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4241(d). The defendant may be hospitalized for a reasonable time, generally not to exceed four months, "to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future he will attain the capacity to permit the trial to proceed." 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4241(d)(1). If at the end of this period the court determines that defendant's mental condition has not improved sufficiently for trial to proceed, the defendant becomes subject to the provisions of section 4246. 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4241(d).

Section 4246(a) authorizes the director of the facility in which the defendant is hospitalized to certify that (1) the defendant is "presently suffering from a mental disease or defect as a result of which his release would create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person or serious damage to property of another" and (2) "suitable arrangements for State custody and care of the person are not available." Upon the filing of such a certificate, the court holds a hearing to determine whether the person is dangerous as alleged. If the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that defendant's condition satisfies the section 4246(a) criteria, it shall commit the defendant to the custody of the Attorney General pursuant to section 4246(d) until such time as (1) he no longer poses a substantial risk of harm or (2) a state assumes control over his treatment.


Sahhar first contends that 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4246 denies him equal protection by creating an impermissible distinction between different persons who could be classified as dangerous and mentally ill: those who have been charged with federal crimes and those who have not. 3 Dangerous, mentally ill persons not charged with violating federal law are not subject to the provisions of section 4246 or any other federal commitment statute, although many states provide for their commitment. On the other hand, dangerous, mentally ill persons charged with federal crimes face the possibility of indefinite commitment.

A. Although the Supreme Court has on a number of occasions considered the constitutionality of involuntary commitment statutes, see, e.g., Jones v. United States, 463 U.S. 354, 103 S.Ct. 3043, 77 L.Ed.2d 694 (1983); Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 92 S.Ct. 1845, 32 L.Ed.2d 435 (1972); Baxstrom v. Herold, 383 U.S. 107, 86 S.Ct. 760, 15 L.Ed.2d 620 (1966), it has never precisely indicated the standard of review it has exercised in reaching its decisions. 4 In Jones, the Court indicated in dicta that the traditional rational basis test applies to involuntary commitment classifications, see 463 U.S. at 362 n. 10, 103 S.Ct. at 3048-49 n. 10, requiring only that the classification be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. See New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297, 303, 96 S.Ct. 2513, 2516, 49 L.Ed.2d 511 (1976). 5 Defendant contends, however, that because "commitment for any purpose constitutes a...

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