EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Phoning It In: Arizona Supreme Court Allows Telephonic Testimony in Involuntary Commitment Hearing

The Supreme Court Court of Arizona decided in In re MH-2008-000867, --- P.3d ----, 2010 WL 3034499 (Ariz. Aug. 5, 2010) that telephonic testimony by a psychiatric expert in an involuntary commitment hearing did not violate the rights of the patient.

The patient objected to the phoned-in testimony, arguing that his inability to confront the doctor violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which he characterized as similar to those under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.

The Supreme Court of the United States has stated, “[F]or the ordinary citizen, commitment to a mental hospital produces a massive curtailment of liberty, and in consequence requires due process protection.”  Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 491-92 (1980) (internal quotations and citations omitted).  The question addressed in MH-2008-000867 is whether due process protection requires the same ability to confront witnesses guaranteed by the Confrontation Clause in criminal cases.

Noting that no court to its knowledge has held that the Confrontation Clause applies to civil commitment hearings, the Arizona court held that "rather than the Confrontation Clause analysis demanded in criminal proceedings by the Sixth Amendment, the appropriate test to determine whether Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process has been afforded in this context is the one set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976)."  In re MH-2008-000867, at ¶9.  Mathews offers the following factors:

First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.

424 U.S. at 335.  After reviewing Arizona evidence rules encouraging in-person testimony but allowing telephonic testimony in certain circumstances, the court concluded, "In circumstances like those presented here, ... allowing telephonic testimony serves important governmental interests and does not significantly increase the risks of an erroneous deprivation."  In re MH-2008-000867, at ¶13.  Accordingly, the court held that admission of the testimony at issue did not deprive the patient of his Fourteenth Amendment rights.  Id. at ¶14.

  - Ben Trachtenberg


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