In Part Two of this three-part post on the horrific stabbing murder of a young medical student studying quietly in the Winchester Public Library on February 24, I wrote of the many times that the accused murderer, Jeffrey Yao, had come to the attention of the Winchester Police Department as well as school authorities and neighbors, for years before his behavior reached this savage ending. Despite this, Yao was never once civilly committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation and treatment – which could have prevented this awful tragedy. The reason that Yao was never civilly committed, has to do with the legal standard for civil commitment in Massachusetts.
“Civil commitment” refers to the legal process through which a person considered mentally ill and dangerous to him/herself or others, can be ordered held in a psychiatric facility for evaluation and possible medical treatment. Massachusetts police do have the authority to do so: Under state law, a police officer who has a good faith belief that a person may harm himself, herself or others due to suspected mental illness is allowed to bring that person to a hospital Emergency Department or a mental health facility to be examined and evaluated by medical professionals, notwithstanding the fact that the individual may not (yet) have committed any crime. If such a person will not cooperate willingly in that process, police have the legal authority to restrain such a person.
By law, a person who is brought to a hospital under such circumstances is under no legal obligation to participate in any evaluation or examination, which is something that a civil libertarian will tell you is a good thing. Not necessarily so, in my opinion as a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer. If the person refuses to cooperate or be evaluated, hospital personnel can invoke a state law that enables the hospital to hold the patient for three days. That should have been done at some point with Jeffrey Yao, and it wasn’t.