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In re N.L.

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

March 14, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF N.L.

          Heard: December 5, 2016.

         Petitions for civil commitment and to authorize medical treatment filed in the Cambridge Division of the District Court Department on November 3, 2014. A motion for a continuance was heard by Roanne Sragow, J., and the petitions were also heard by her. The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Karen Owen Talley for the respondent.

          Diane M. Geraghty Hall for the petitioner.

          Anna Krieger, Robert D. Fleischner, Jennifer Honig, & Phillip Kassel, for Center for Public Representation & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Botsford, Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          LOWY, J.

         N.L. appeals from the order for his civil commitment to a mental health facility (hospital), pursuant to G. L. c. 123, §§ 7 and 8, and the order authorizing his treatment with antipsychotic medications pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 8B. He argues that the District Court judge improperly denied his prehearing request for a continuance to allow time for his counsel to prepare an adequate defense and an independent medical examiner to complete a psychiatric evaluation. We transferred the case from the Appeals Court to this court on our own motion.

         We dismiss the appeal as moot but exercise our discretion to address the issue before us, which is whether a judge may deny a person's (or the person's counsel's) first request for a continuance of a hearing pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 7 (c) or 8B. We hold that where a person or his or her counsel requests such a continuance, the grant of the continuance is mandatory where a denial thereof is reasonably likely to prejudice a person's ability to prepare a meaningful defense.[1]

         Background.

         1. Facts.

         N.L. was admitted to the hospital on October 30, 2014, under the emergency hospitalization provisions of G. L. c. 123, § 12. On November 3, the hospital filed a petition for commitment pursuant to G. L. c. 123, §§ 7 and 8, and a petition for determination of incompetency and for authorization for medical treatment for mental illness pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 8B. Counsel was appointed for N.L. The hearing on the petitions was scheduled for November 6. Due to administrative delays, counsel for N.L. did not receive a copy of N.L.'s medical records until November 5, the same day that an independent psychiatrist retained by counsel first met with N.L. On November 6, counsel for N.L. filed a motion to continue the hearing to allow him time to prepare a meaningful defense and to allow the independent medical examiner time to complete his evaluation. The hospital opposed the motion on the grounds that delay would jeopardize N.L.'s safety. The judge denied the motion to continue without stating her reasons, and proceeded with the commitment hearing. The judge then ordered N.L. to be involuntarily committed to the hospital for a period not to exceed six months. Immediately following the commitment hearing, the incompetency and medical treatment hearing commenced. The judge allowed the hospital's petition to treat N.L. with antipsychotic medication against his will.

         N.L. timely appealed this decision to the Appellate Division of the District Court Department. In September 2015, that court dismissed N.L.'s appeal as moot because he had since been discharged from the hospital, and the court declined to reach his arguments because it held that the circumstances of the case were not "capable of repetition."

         2. Statut ...


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