New York City’s new plan to take more mentally ill homeless people to hospitals against their will if they are deemed a danger to themselves met its first legal challenge on Thursday.
In a federal court motion filed in an existing lawsuit, a civil rights law firm argued that the new policy “lowers the standard for involuntary detentions and hospitalizations” to a such that people could end up being forcibly hospitalized “solely because an NYPD officer perceives that they have a mental disability and nothing more.
The motion said the policy violates constitutional rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. He calls for a temporary restraining order to prevent the plan from taking effect.
According to the filing, the police have “little or no expertise” in dealing with people with mental disabilities who might be “forcefully detained – often violently”.
The request comes nine days after Mayor Eric Adams announced the plan. He said the city had a “moral obligation” to immediately help the hundreds of people whose mental illness prevents them from meeting basic needs such as food, shelter and health care, even if they do not represent no threat to others.
New Yorkers in mental health crisis frequently cross hospitals, prisons and the streets. Mr Adams said he would push for hospitals to keep patients on until they are stable and a long-term care plan is in place. But critics note that shortages of hospital beds, proper housing and outpatient care will make it difficult to end this cycle.
The New York Legal Department said in an email that Mr. Adams’ plan complied with federal and state laws. The city filed a letter with the court on Thursday asking the judge handling the case, Paul A. Crotty, not to rule on the case without giving him a full hearing. He said the motion ‘does not demonstrate the need for emergency aid’ in part because it cites no examples of the new policy being used on anyone.
The new motion came in a case filed last year by Beldock Levine & Hoffman, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and other attorneys on behalf of multiple individuals and advocacy organizations. It calls into question how the police department treats what it calls an “emotionally disturbed person.” The city decided to dismiss that lawsuit in September; Judge Crotty has yet to rule on the city’s request.
Thursday’s motion argues that the new policy also violates the Americans With Disabilities Act and New York City Human Rights Act and creates a “concrete risk” that people will be detained “for simply living with their illness in a public place”.
The motion includes a statement from a plaintiff in the lawsuit who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and said he was violently detained and involuntarily taken to hospital in 2020 after someone falsely reported to 911 that he was suicidal. The man, Steven Greene, 27, said that since the mayor’s announcement he was afraid to leave his apartment for fear of being forcibly transferred to a hospital “simply because he is an individual suffering from a mental disability”.
Under the mayor’s plan, police and mental health workers will be instructed to transport people to hospitals if their behavior puts them at risk. A helpline staffed by clinicians will be available to notify the police if a person meets this standard.
The state’s involuntary hospitalization law empowers police to have a person who appears mentally ill taken to the hospital only if the person’s conduct is “likely to cause serious harm to the person or to another person.” .
Guidance released by the state in February said the standard includes people “who display an inability to meet basic life needs” and that its application only to people who appear “immediately dangerous” puts vulnerable people at risk. Mr Adams’ directive, building on this broader wording, states that the grounds for involuntarily taking someone to hospital could include “blindness or delusional misunderstanding of the environment or or the delusional misunderstanding of fitness or health”.
The motion seeking the restraining order challenges the hypothetical examples Mr. Adams gave of people who would be covered by the new policy. The mayor said the plan would target “the shadow boxer around the corner in Midtown, mumbling to himself punching an unseen opponent,” among other things.
This depiction, the motion says, “does not describe someone who is unable to meet their basic needs, much less someone who meets the standard of grave danger.”
He added that the city plan “is devoid of details of how an officer can in fact determine whether Mayor Adams’ ghost boxer is unable to meet his basic needs or is merely exercising.” .
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