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Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Process by Which Insanity Acquittees May Petition for Release

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of Washington clarified the procedures for an insanity acquittee seeking to obtain conditional release from commitment. The March 8, 2018, opinion held that such detainees may petition the court directly without first having to apply indirectly through a petition to the Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”). Either the insanity acquittee or DSHS may initiate the process for obtaining release.

The Court also ruled that in either case an indigent acquittee is entitled to appointment of legal counsel when seeking conditional release.

Charles David Fletcher was found not guilty by reason of insanity of assault in 2013. The charges related to a 2011 incident in which Fletcher tried to stab people driving by in their vehicles with a knife. The police arrived, and Fletcher fled in his vehicle, which he crashed into several other vehicles, a telephone pole, and a Subway restaurant.

Two years into his commitment, Fletcher mailed a letter to the superior court judge in which he requested conditional release. The judge wrote Fletcher back and told him that he first needed to apply to DSHS, pursuant to the Revised Code of Washington (“RCW”) 10.77.150. Instead of following the judge’s instructions, Fletcher sought a review of the judge’s letter in the Court of Appeals and asked for an attorney. The Court of Appeals agreed with the superior court judge that Fletcher needed to file with DSHS first.

Fletcher filed a petition for discretionary review with the Washington Supreme Court, which it granted. The Supreme Court stated that in light of the confusion surrounding the pro se process for seeking conditional release it needed to address “whether an insanity acquittee can petition the superior court directly for conditional release … instead of applying indirectly through DSHS….”

On review, the Court considered two separate but related statutes. RCW 10.77.150 describes a specific process to be used by insanity acquittees pursuing conditional release. The statute contemplates the detainee submitting an application directly to DSHS, which then forwards the application to the superior court with its recommendation.

RCW 10.77.200(5), on the other hand, had previously been interpreted by the Supreme Court in State v. Reid, 30 P.3d 465 (Wash. 2001), to be “a stand-alone petitioning process that grants insanity acquittees direct access to the courts.” Because the Reid Court did not engage in detailed statutory analysis, confusion persisted as to whether an insanity acquittee was required to apply through DSHS first.

In the present case, the Court undertook the detailed statutory analysis of RCW 10.77.200(5) that it neglected to do in Reid, and after doing so, the Court concluded that a detainee petitioning for conditional release from commitment need not submit an application to DSHS first. That is, the statute “establishes a stand-alone, direct self-petition process.” According to the Court, the committee that drafted the statutory language “was aware that it was creating a separate avenue by which an insanity acquittee could petition the court directly for conditional release.”

It was less clear whether the legislative committee believed that the administrative application to DSHS had to be pursued first, but the procedures established by the statute indicated that it did not think so, the Court concluded. RCW 10.77.200(5) provides that once the court-filed petition is forwarded to DSHS, “the [DSHS] secretary shall develop a recommendation.” Such language would be superfluous and unnecessary if the application had to go to DSHS first because the recommendation would have already been prepared.

As such, the Court held that an insanity acquittee seeking conditional release may apply directly to the superior court or directly to DSHS. There is no requirement under Washington law that such a detainee pursue release through DSHS first.

The Court also considered whether indigent insanity acquittees are entitled to assistance of counsel throughout this process. It held that Washington law requires the appointment of counsel in such situations, regardless of whether conditional release is pursued through an administrative application to DSHS or a petition filed directly with the court.

RCW 10.77.020 grants insanity acquittees the right to counsel at “any and all stages of the proceedings.” The Court interpreted that to mean the right attaches upon submission of an administrative application to DSHS under RCW 10.77.150 or upon filing of a petition directly with the superior court under RCW 10.77.200(5).

Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: State v. Fletcher, 412 P.3d 285 (Wash. 2018). 

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