On April 4, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Hollingsworth[i], which is instructive regarding the legal standard to effect an involuntary mental health committal.  The relevant facts of Hollingsworth are as follows:

On April 5, 2021, Hollingsworth made a 911 call. Claiming an “emergency,” he told the dispatcher to relay a message to Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods for Woods’s role in a 2013 incident involving Hollingsworth. The gist of the message was that, when “God can put [him] in a position to do it,” Hollingsworth was “going to unload a whole fucking clip in his fucking face, in his whole fucking cranium in front of all his employees and his bosses.” Hollingsworth continued to discuss the 2013 incident and then ended the call. During the call, Hollingsworth sounded angry and was cursing beyond what he said in the message set forth above.

Officer Robert Crossman was dispatched to a RaceTrac gas station in Ocala, Florida, to address the threatening 911 call. When Crossman arrived, Hollingsworth was outside livestreaming the events on his cell phone and “ranting” about the 2013 incident. Stating that he had unsettled business or “beef” from that incident, in which he had been shot multiple times, he demanded the “sheriff’s department to come out in full force” and to “bring all your boys,” including “helicopters and everybody,” with “them guns drawn.” He said he had “already died before” and “didn’t care.”

Soon after Crossman arrived at the scene, Officer Shelby Prather arrived with her field trainee, Officer Branden McCoy and took over primary responsibility. The officers questioned Hollingsworth further about the 911 call and the 2013 incident.

Hollingsworth explained to the officers that he had been shot multiple times during an incident in March 2013. It appears that he later pled guilty to and was convicted of attempted strongarm robbery based on that incident. But Hollingsworth believed that the Marion County Sheriff’s Office had lied about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. He also discussed problems obtaining disability benefits for his injuries or other redress for the 2013 incident because of his conviction. It’s not clear whether Woods, who became sheriff in 2017, played any personal role in the prior incident.

Hollingsworth was generally calm, cooperative, and responsive during the encounter, but his “behavior was pretty erratic and obsessive about . . . the incident that occurred back in 2013,” according to Prather. He continued to insist that Sheriff Woods and the Sheriff’s Office respond to the scene and that he had business or a score to settle. He denied threatening Sheriff Woods in the 911 call, and he was “adamant” that the officers listen to the recording. Hollingsworth also denied wanting to harm anyone, stating that he wanted only to meet Sheriff Woods.

Based on Hollingsworth’s behavior at the scene, neither Crossman nor Prather believed Hollingsworth met the criteria for the Baker Act (or any criminal offense). Crossman told Prather that Hollingsworth had called 911 “to vent,” that he did not want to hurt himself or anyone else and knew where he was, and that RaceTrac “love[d] him.” Likewise, Prather told her supervisor, Sergeant Kyle Howie, who had arrived on the scene but did not interact with Hollingsworth, that the circumstances were “not 329″—329 being code for the Baker Act—and that she would close the case with an incident report “just because it’s kind of weird.”

When they made these observations, though, the officers had not yet listened to Hollingsworth’s 911 call, which Prather believed was relevant to the investigation. As a result, Hollingsworth was detained outside the RaceTrac for approximately 45 minutes while Howie obtained a recording of the call. After listening to the recording, Prather notified Hollingsworth that Hollingsworth would be detained and transported for examination under the Baker Act.

Hollingsworth was handcuffed and searched. While being checked for and questioned about weapons, Hollingsworth told the officers he was homeless and did not own any weapons, and he asked the officers to collect his backpack by the RaceTrac. Crossman retrieved the backpack and searched it, finding a single 9mm bullet, which Hollingsworth later described as his “lucky bullet.” Because Hollingsworth was a convicted felon, he was taken to jail for unlawful possession of ammunition, rather than to a mental-health facility for evaluation.[ii]

Hollingsworth was subsequently charged with a federal weapons violation.  He filed a motion to suppress and the district court denied the motion.  He later appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Hollingsworth argued that the deputies lacked probable cause to believe he was a threat to the sheriff and others, and as such, the evidence that was discovered during the inventory of his bag should be suppressed.

The court of appeals first examined the legal standard that officers must abide by when enforcing involuntary committal laws.  The court stated

Under the Fourth Amendment, an individual has a right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” Skop v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 485 F.3d 1130, 1137 (11th Cir. 2007), including seizures “to ascertain that person’s mental state (rather than to investigate suspected criminal activity),” Roberts v. Spielman, 643 F.3d 899, 905 (11th Cir. 2011). To be reasonable, a custodial seizure must be supported by probable cause. Skop, 485 F.3d at 1137; see Ingram v. Kubik, 30 F.4th 1241, 1250 (11th Cir. 2022) (“Mental health seizures are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment when the officer has probable cause to believe that the seized person is a danger to himself or to others.”).[iii]

Thus, the issue before the court of appeals was “whether there was probable cause to take Hollingsworth into custody under Florida’s Baker Act.”[iv]  The court further discussed what is to be considered when determining if there was probable cause.  The court stated

Relevant recent behavior may include “causing, attempting, or threatening to do [serious bodily] harm.” D.F. v. State, 248 So. 3d 1232, 1234 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2018). That an individual might need treatment for a mental illness alone is insufficient to justify involuntary commitment. Id.; Williams v. State, 522 So. 2d 983, 984 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1988). So too are “[v]ague notions about what a person might do—for example, a belief about some likeli- hood that without treatment a person might cause some type of harm at some point.Khoury, 4 F.th at 1126.[v]

Next, the court examined the Baker Act to determine the elements that need to be established to support an involuntary commitment under the Act.  The court stated

Florida’s Baker Act permits police officers to take a “person who appears to meet the criteria for involuntary examination into custody” and deliver the person to a mental-health facility. Fla. Stat. § 394.463(2)(a)2. The criteria provide, as relevant here, that there must be “reason to believe” the following: (1) the “person has a mental illness”; (2) he has refused a voluntary examination or is unable to make that decision for himself; and (3) “[t]here is a substantial likelihood that without care or treatment the person will cause serious bodily harm to himself or herself or others in the near future, as evidenced by recent behavior.” Fla. Stat. § 394.463(1).[vi]

The court then examined the facts in totality to determine whether probable cause existed.  First, the court noted that Hollingsworth called 911 and threatened “to unload a whole clip in Sheriff Woods’s . . . face, in his whole cranium in front of all his employees and his bosses.”[vii]  Second, after deputies arrived, Hollingsworth continued to fixate on an alleged injustice he suffered in 2013.  Third, he repeatedly attempted to provoke a confrontation with Sheriff Woods and “all his boys” with “them guns drawn,” while stating that he did not care about the consequences because he “already died before.” [viii]

The court of appeals held

Given this recent behavior, which included threatening to do serious bodily harm to Sheriff Woods and then being “erratic and obsessive” about meeting the sheriff to settle an old score, probable cause existed to believe that Hollingsworth had a mental illness and that there was a “substantial likelihood that without care or treatment [he] [would] cause serious bodily harm to others in the near future.Fla. Stat. § 394.463(1); D.F., 248 So. 3d at 1234; see also Paez v. Mulvey, 915 F.3d 1276, 1286 (11th Cir. 2019)[ix]

Hollingsworth argued that his reassurances that he was not going to actually harm Sheriff Woods or anyone negated the probable cause.  However, the court of appeals disagreed and stated officers are not required to accept innocent assurances when there is also sufficient evidence to support probable cause.

Thus, the officers had probable cause to conduct an involuntary committal under the Baker Act.

Hollingsworth also argued that it was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to detain him for 45 minutes while they listened to the 911-call.  The court of appeals stated

[A]n officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. The recording was relevant to the investigation of the 911 call, which the officers believed contained threats against a local public official. And there is no evidence that Hollingsworth, though not free to leave, was detained longer or under more severe conditions than necessary to obtain the 911 call recording. See United States v. Gil, 204 F.3d 1347, 1350-51 (11th Cir. 2000) (investigatory stops must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place).”[x]

In this case, the deputies diligently pursued the investigation by listening to the 911-call, which was directly related to the incident that justified Hollingsworth’s initial detention.

Thus, the court of appeals held the detention was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The court of appeals then affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

_____________________________________________

Citations

[i] No. 22-11250 (11th Cir. Decided April 4, 2023 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 2-5

[iii] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 10

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)

[x] Id. at 13 (emphasis added)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email