As a Massachusetts resident, you may have heard talk about civil commitments under Section 35, however, you are not alone if you are unfamiliar with how this law works, and what rights an individual has under Section 35. Believe it or not, Massachusetts law allows a qualified person to petition to have another individual treated involuntarily for an alcohol or substance use disorder. Unfortunately, placing people under involuntary treatment can actually be countertherapeutic due to its stigmatizing nature.
Fortunately, if someone tries to force you into treatment for substance abuse, you do have rights, and an attorney can protect you during court proceedings and build a case against involuntary commitment.
Keep reading to learn about what Section 35 is, how it works, and the importance of seeking representation if someone tries to petition to force you into treatment for substance abuse.
Under Massachusetts General Law chapter 123, Section 35, a qualified person can file a petition requesting a court order to have another individual involuntarily committed to mandatory substance abuse treatment. In order for an individual, referred to as the “respondent,” to be involuntarily committed to substance abuse treatment under Section 35, a court must find that the individual meets the following criteria:
The respondent has an alcohol or substance use disorder, and
There is a likelihood that the respondent will cause serious harm to themselves or another individual as a result of their substance abuse.
Fortunately, no one can arbitrarily have another individual committed to substance abuse treatment. Specific circumstances have to be met, and a judge has to determine that treatment is necessary in order to prevent serious harm. Additionally, the petitioner must be able to prove that the serious harm is directly related to substance abuse and is a current or imminent threat.
Under Section 35, a qualified petitioner such as a police officer, physician, spouse, relative, guardian, or court official can ask a court to involuntarily commit someone to addiction treatment. The petitioner must go to their local court and file a written petition or affidavit for an order of commitment to start the process of having the respondent committed, which will include a court hearing to determine if involuntary commitment is necessary. In some cases, a warrant may be issued for the respondent, and police may bring the person to court for their hearing.
In the application for commitment, the petitioner must specify the nature of the person’s drug or alcohol use and in what way the respondent presents a danger to themselves or others. Prior to the hearing, a judge must order an exam by a qualified practitioner to determine whether the respondent has a substance use disorder, and whether or not there is a serious risk they will harm themselves or others as a result of their addiction. It is important to note that the person facing commitment can decline this evaluation, and refusal to submit to the clinician’s evaluation cannot be used as grounds for commitment.
If the court is able to establish that an individual’s addiction poses a serious risk of harm, the judge can send that person to involuntary treatment for up to 90 days.
People often see addiction treatment as something people seek out voluntarily when they are ready to start the recovery process. It then surprises many people to learn that they can be held against their will and forced into addiction treatment if it is determined necessary by the court in order to prevent serious harm. In fact, you can even be handcuffed if necessary to get you to your court date.
Unfortunately, while petitioners under Section 35 are often well-intentioned and want their loved ones to get better, involuntary commitment can do more harm than good. This is because there is insufficient capacity at treatment facilities, and 3 out of 4 Section 35 beds are in correctional facilities in Massachusetts.
The fact is that jail is not an appropriate substitute for inpatient addiction treatment, and incarcerating people with addiction issues can cause unnecessary trauma.
Unfortunately, while being incarcerated under Section 35 for addiction can cause trauma and leave the respondent facing stigmas when they get out, many families see this as an appropriate first treatment option. However, the reality is that having someone involuntarily committed to addiction treatment under Section 35 is an extreme step to take that can have serious consequences for the respondent, making it imperative that this is only used as a last resort.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, the best option is to see if you can get them to enter treatment voluntarily, as there are many great private and public programs available that can help provide addiction recovery without having to resort to involuntary incarceration under court order. Not only is this a less extreme option, but if an individual feels as though they are part of the process of making the decision to enter treatment, they will be more receptive to it. The fact is that involuntary addiction treatment is often ineffective, and if you can convince a loved one to enter treatment voluntarily, they are much more likely to actually get sober.
One of the biggest reasons that involuntary addiction treatment should only be used as a last resort (such as in cases where an individual is a serious threat to themselves or others) is that it is often ineffective. In fact, individuals who are involuntarily committed have an extremely high relapse rate, with one study finding that 33.8% of people relapsed the same day as their release.
Not only is there growing evidence that involuntary addiction treatment doesn’t work, but there is even evidence suggesting that it is actually counterproductive as it can cause harm. While legitimate addiction treatment centers are places of healing and recovery, patients who have been committed under Section 35 often face mistreatment by Corrections Officers, and many people feel as though they are treated more like prisoners than as a patient in need of care. This can then cause trauma for patients that can be countertherapeutic, leading to high rates of relapse. These individuals are also often unwilling to continue addiction treatment after their release due to the trauma they faced in incarceration.
Fortunately, if someone tries to petition to have you committed under Section 35, you have the right to an attorney at all stages of the proceedings. In fact, it is advisable that you consult a Section 35 attorney as soon as you are made aware that you may be involuntarily committed to addiction treatment, as an experienced attorney can help you during these challenging times by:
Having an attorney by your side from the beginning can be critical in ensuring your rights are looked after. Your attorney can help advise you on what to say (and what not to say) to help you avoid being committed. Your attorney can also help you better understand your rights, as many people do not realize that they do not have to submit to a clinician evaluation. In fact, it will likely be in your best interest to decline evaluation, as anything you say to the clinician will be disclosed in court during the commitment hearing.
Your attorney can evaluate your case and help you determine what steps to take to reduce your chances of being involuntarily committed.
Having an attorney by your side will give you the best chance of avoiding being committed during your hearing. Having experience handling cases similar to yours, your attorney will analyze the evidence being used against you, and they will develop a strategy to reduce the likelihood that you will be forced into addiction treatment.
Without an attorney, you will have to represent yourself on your court date, which will leave you vulnerable to being involuntarily forced into an addiction treatment program. However, with an attorney by your side, you will have someone representing your rights who can argue against commitment on your behalf. They can prove instrumental by cross-examing any witnesses who speak in favor of commitment, and they can coach you on what to say should you choose to speak on your behalf during the hearing. Working with an attorney will then give you the best odds of avoiding involuntary commitment.
If you are being faced with the possibility of involuntary commitment under Section 35, contact us now to learn more about how we can assist you during this difficult time.