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State v. Fletcher

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

March 8, 2018

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
CHARLES DAVID FLETCHER, Petitioner.

          GORDON McCLOUD, J.

         If a criminal defendant is acquitted due to insanity, the judge must then decide what to do with him or her. An acquitted person who constitutes a substantial danger to others, or who presents a substantial likelihood of committing criminal acts jeopardizing public safety or security unless kept under further control of the court, other persons, or institutions, "shall" be committed under our state's involuntary commitment statute. RCW 10.77.110(1). If those safety concerns disappear, the insanity acquittee must be released. Either the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) or the insanity acquittee may initiate the process for obtaining such release.

         Charles David Fletcher was found not guilty by reason of insanity of assault and related crimes in 2013. The judge ordered him committed. Fletcher then initiated the process for obtaining release in 2015 by mailing a motion for release directly to the superior court judge. The court directed Fletcher to file with DSHS instead, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. We must now clarify how this self-petition process works. Specifically, we address (1) whether an insanity acquittee can petition the court for conditional release directly instead of applying indirectly through DSHS and (2) whether the insanity acquittee is entitled to legal counsel when seeking conditional release. We hold that the insanity acquittee may petition the court directly for conditional release. We further hold that he or she is entitled to legal counsel once a petition for conditional release is filed with the court or an application for release is submitted to DSHS. We therefore reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the superior court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In 2013, Fletcher was acquitted by reason of insanity of assault, attempting to elude a pursuing police officer, and failing to remain at an accident scene.[1] Clerk's Papers (CP) at 4-5. The trial court then made findings and committed him. It set Fletcher's commitment term at the statutory maximum of 10 years, with 585 days credit for time served. CP at 5.

         Two years later, Fletcher mailed to the superior court judge a letter with attached motions for conditional release and appointment of counsel, which we are treating as motions. In these motions and his corresponding cover letter, Fletcher explained that he was seeking early conditional release and requested appointment of counsel at public expense because he was indigent. CP at 10-14.

         The trial judge responded to Fletcher's unfiled motion a few days later via letter. CP at 6. In that letter, the trial judge informed Fletcher that under RCW 10.77.150, "the first step in this process is for the patient to apply to the Secretary of DSHS (I presume this can be done at [the commitment hospital]) for a Conditional Release." Id. The trial judge attached a copy of that statute. CP at 6-9. The trial judge further explained that "[o]nce that has happened, the court can consider whether a hearing is necessary and can consider appointment of a Public Defender." CP at 6.

         Instead of submitting an application for conditional release to DSHS through the process described in RCW 10.77.150, Fletcher sought review of the trial judge's letter ruling in the Court of Appeals.[2] A panel of three Court of Appeals judges unanimously agreed that Fletcher was required to apply for conditional release through DSHS first. See State v. Fletcher, 198 Wn.App. 157, 163, 168-69, 392 P.3d 1161, review granted, 188 Wn.2d 1015, 396 P.3d 345 (2017). But the panel split on whether Fletcher's request for counsel should be granted. Specifically, they disagreed over the nature of Fletcher's request for appointed counsel. Two judges interpreted it as a request for assistance with filing an invalid direct petition to the superior court and held that Fletcher was not entitled to appointed counsel for such an invalid direct petition. Id. at 164. The dissenting judge, in contrast, interpreted Fletcher's request for appointed counsel as a motion for assistance with preparing an administrative application to DSHS; he would have authorized the appointment of counsel for that purpose. Id. at 174.

         Fletcher petitioned this court for discretionary review, which we granted. Fletcher, 188 Wn.2d 1015. Given the confusion surrounding the nature of Fletcher's pro se filings at the superior court, we address two issues: (1) whether an insanity acquittee can petition the superior court directly for conditional release under RCW 10.77.200(5) instead of applying indirectly through DSHS under RCW 10.77.150(1) and (2) whether the insanity acquittee is entitled to the assistance of counsel under RCW 10.77.020(1) for either procedural pathway.[3] The answer to both questions is yes, but the right to counsel does not attach until either document is filed.

         Analysis

         Before committing a criminal defendant acquitted by reason of insanity, the trial court must find that the person is either a substantial danger to others or presents a substantial likelihood of committing criminal acts jeopardizing public safety or security unless kept under further control of the court, other persons, or institutions. RCW 10.77.110(1). An examination must be conducted every six months to evaluate the need for continued commitment. RCW 10.77.140. If the court determines that the insanity acquitee no longer meets these prerequisites to involuntary commitment, the insanity acquittee must be released. State v. Reid, 144 Wn.2d 621, 630, 30 P.3d 465 (2001) (discussing circumstances for conditional and unconditional release).

         The parties agree that an insanity acquittee may initiate the process for conditional release. The parties disagree about whether that self-petition process is limited by RCW 10.77.15O(1) to administrative applications, or whether the insanity acquittee may also petition the superior court directly under RCW 10.77.200(5). The parties further dispute whether Fletcher is entitled to counsel under RCW 10.77.020(1) during the self-petition process.

         I. An Insanity Acquittee Can Choose between Petitioning the Court Directly for Conditional Release or Applying Indirectly through DSHS

         We have already stated in a prior case, Reid, that "an insanity acquittee is not required to first apply to the secretary for final discharge or conditional release." 144 Wn.2d at 629. Instead, "[h]e may . . . petition the court directly pursuant to [former] RCW 10.77.200(3) [(1998)], " now renumbered as RCW 10.77.200(5). Id; Laws of 2010; ch. 263, § 8..[4] Because the availability of a stand-alone, direct self-petition process was conceded in Reid, we did not engage in statutory analysis. Suppl. Br. of Resp't, State v. Reid, No. 70290-0, at 8 (Wash.), reprinted in 10 Briefs 144 Wn.2d (2001) ("Former RCW 10.77.200(3) (1998), under which Reid sought release, permitted the acquittee to petition directly to the superior court for final discharge or conditional release from the institution in which he or she is committed."). We conduct that analysis now and affirm that RCW 10.77.200(5) establishes a stand-alone, direct self-petition process.

         Notably, the State does not argue that Reid's statement that RCW 10.77.200(5) establishes a stand-alone, direct self-petition process was wrong.[5]Indeed, the State concedes that Reid's statement is consistent with the plain language of RCW 10.77.200(5), [6] which says that "[n]othing contained in this chapter shall prohibit the patient from petitioning the court for release or conditional release from the institution in which he or she is committed." (Emphasis added.)

         Moreover, Reid's interpretation of RCW 10.77.200(5) as a stand-alone petitioning process that grants insanity acquittees direct access to the courts is consistent with what appears to be the legislature's intent.[7] Prior to 1973, an insanity acquittee seeking release from involuntary commitment had to obtain physician certification as a prerequisite for petitioning for release. Former RCW 10.76.070 (1972). In 1973, the legislature significantly overhauled the process for committing insanity acquittees and replaced the statutes with a new chapter, chapter 10.77 RCW. Laws of 1973, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 117. Under this new statutory scheme, physician certification was no longer a prerequisite to seeking conditional release. Instead, that prerequisite was replaced with a different prerequisite: a recommendation from the secretary of DSHS about whether release is merited. Id. §§ l5(1)-(2).

         But the legislature limited the applicability of that filing prerequisite to non-habeas-corpus petitions. According to the legislature, "Nothing in this chapter shall prohibit a person committed from exercising a right presently available to him for obtaining release from confinement, including the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus." Id. § 24. The legislature also included a second habeas corpus provision specifically related to final (rather than conditional) discharge. That provision said "Nothing contained in this chapter shall prohibit the patient from petitioning by writ of habeas corpus for final discharge." Id. § 20(3). Thus, a DSHS letter of recommendation was not expressly required with a habeas corpus petition but seemed to be required for other petitions.

         The very next year, however, the legislature, at the House Judiciary committee's behest, amended the statutes governing release to clarify that it did not intend to bar direct petitions to the court for conditional release or to limit court petitions to only habeas corpus petitions. Laws of 1974, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 198, § 16(3). ...


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