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O'BEIRNE v. OVERHOLSER

April 27, 1961

Herbert T. O'BEIRNE, Petitioner,
v.
Winfred OVERHOLSER, Respondent



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

This is a writ of habeas corpus issued on the application of an inmate of Saint Elizabeths Mental Hospital, claiming that he is unlawfully restrained of his liberty.

On October 18, 1957 the petitioner, Herbert T. O'Beirne, was tried in the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia, on a charge of petit larceny. In case of conviction, the maximum sentence of imprisonment that could have been imposed on him was for a term of one year. His counsel, however, interjected the issue of insanity. The petitioner was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was thereupon committed to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, where he has remained ever since -- about three and one-half years.

 This commitment was made pursuant to D.C.Code, § 24-301(c) and (d), which read as follows:

 '(c) When any person tried upon an indictment or information for an offense, * * * is acquitted solely on the ground that he was insane at the time of its commission, that fact shall be set forth by the jury in their verdict.

 '(d) If any person tried upon an indictment or information for an offense, * * * is acquitted solely on the ground that he was insane at the time of its commission, the court shall order such person to be confined in a hospital for the mentally ill.' (Emphasis supplied.)

 The procedure for the release of a person committed under the foregoing provisions is prescribed in subsection (e), the pertinent parts of which read as follows:

 '(e) Where any person has been confined in a hospital for the mentally ill pursuant to subsection (d) of this section, and the superintendent of such hospital certifies (1) that such person has recovered his sanity, (2) that, in the opinion of the superintendent, such person will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others, and (3) in the opinion of the superintendent, the person is entitled to his unconditional release from the hospital, * * * such certificate shall be sufficient to authorize the court to order the unconditional release of the person so confined from further hospitalization at the expiration of fifteen days from the time said certificate was filed and served as above; but the court in its discretion may, or upon objection of the United States or the District of Columbia shall, after due notice, hold a hearing at which evidence as to the mental condition of the person so confined may be submitted, * * *. The court shall weigh the evidence and, if the court finds that such person has recovered his sanity and will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others, the court shall order such person unconditionally released from further confinement in said hospital. If the court does not so find, the court shall order such person returned to said hospital * * *.'

 In other words, a person who has been acquitted of a crime on the ground of insanity and has been committed to a mental hospital, may be unconditionally released only on the basis of a certificate of the superintendent of the hospital to the effect that he has recovered his sanity and that in the opinion of the superintendent he will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself of others, and is entitled to his unconditional release. Necessarily the requirement of a certificate that the person will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others, means dangerous by reason of mental disease or defect, and not merely because of any propensity to commit crimes -- or any other cause. The certificate is a condition precedent to a discharge.

 The petitioner contends that the superintendent is arbitrarily and capriciously withholding such a certificate. The return to the writ denies that the superintendent is arbitrary and capricious, and affirmatively avers that the petitioner 'has not recovered from his abnormal mental condition and requires further treatment before he can be certified as not dangerous to himself or others if released into the community'. The assertions of the return are general in form. There is no specification or explanation as to what the 'abnormal mental condition' is in this instance. This phrase is not a word of art and may comprize many conditions that do not constitute either a mental illness or a mental defect. There is no allegation that the petitioner is suffering from any mental illness or mental defect, or any specific diagnosis. To use the words of the statute, there is no allegation that he has not recovered his sanity. The return is manifestly insufficient on its face. Moreover, there is no statement as to what treatment the petitioner needs, or what treatment is contemplated for him, or in fact what treatment he has received in the past.

 At the outset the scope of judicial review in this matter must be defined. As shown above, the statute exacts an appropriate certificate of the superintendent of the hospital as a condition precedent to release. The court may not substitute its own judgment for that of the superintendent and may not try the matter de novo. On the other hand, the action of the superintendent, or his failure to act, may not be deemed final or conclusive for all purposes. *fn1" Otherwise a person could be restrained of his liberty indefinitely at the fiat of an administrative officer. Such a course would be contrary to the basic principles of American free institutions. No executive or administrative official may deprive any one of his freedom without judicial review. *fn2" This court may step in to determine whether the action or failure to act, on the part of the superintendent, is arbitrary and capricious. In fact the Congress contemplated this contingency, as is evidenced by subsection (g) of the above statute:

 '(g) Nothing herein contained shall preclude a person confined under the authority of this section from establishing his eligibility for release under the provisions of this section by a writ of habeas corpus.'

 It may well be that this provision is surplusage, but the Congress wisely included it as a matter of precaution.

 The words 'arbitrary and capricious' are a technical legal phrase. They are not used in their popular sense and in this connection have no opprobrious connotation. In the eyes of the law an administrative action not supported by evidence or lacking a rational basis, is deemed arbitrary and capricious. Decisions of administrative officers may not be predicated on their personal desires or views, no matter how sincere they may be, O'Boyle v. Coe, D.C., 155 F.Supp. 581, 584.

 The principles are but an application of the scheme of the Administrative Procedure Act, the pertinent provisions of which are ...


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