PA. Supreme Court Rewrites Mental Health Act

By: Scaringi Law Attorney Brian C. Caffrey

Affects Firearms Rights

In a May 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rewrote the Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”), in a decision that will have far-reaching consequences.

Until May 21 of this year, in order to sustain an involuntary mental health commitment based on a threat to kill another person, there had to be evidence not only of the threat itself, but also of an “act in furtherance” of that threat. In fact, that phrase comes right from the law that the General Assembly passed. However, with the case of In re B.W., the “act in furtherance” requirement has been deprived of much of its meaning.

In B.W., the petitioner told a primary care physician that he would strangle a co-worker to death the next time he saw him. After petitioner’s commitment under § 302 of the MHPA, he filed a petition to expunge the commitment. After a hearing, the trial court denied the petition, but on appeal, the Superior Court reversed, concluding that the facts were insufficient to show that the petitioner had made an act in furtherance of his threat to kill the co-worker. The state Supreme Court accepted the appeal of the county Department of Social Services.

Critically, according to the Supreme Court, the petitioner conceded that the development of a plan could satisfy the act-in-furtherance requirement of the MHPA. After concluding that an act in furtherance is still required in this setting, the Court held that communicating to the doctor the plan to strangle the co-worker constituted an act in furtherance of the threat to strangle that person. The well-reasoned dissent in the case quite correctly argued that the petitioner’s expression of his thoughts, without some action that would advance or help forward the threat, cannot simultaneously be both a threat and an act in furtherance of the threat. Dissenting Justice Todd summed up the case in saying that “no evidence was offered that [petitioner] took any action apart from uttering these expressions of his mental state.”

It will be incumbent on lawyers representing persons in B.W.’s position to probe for means to address this newly established doctrine.

If you need advice concerning an involuntary mental health commitment, call Scaringi Law for an initial consultation.

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