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The People v. Ronald Cuevas

January 28, 2013

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
RONALD CUEVAS, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



Super. Ct. No. MH037286) Trial Court: Santa Clara County Superior Court No.: MH037286 Trial Judge: The Honorable Thomas W. Cain

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marquez, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

(Santa Clara County

1. introduction

Under statutes in effect in March 2011, a person could be committed involuntarily to the State Department of Developmental Services ("Department") for up to one year after a petition alleged (former Welf. & Inst. Code, § 6500; Stats. 1996, ch. 1076, § 5)*fn1 and a court found "that the person is mentally retarded, and that he or she is a danger to himself, herself, or to others." (Former § 6509; Stats. 1996, ch. 1076, § 8.5.)*fn2 That is what has happened in this case with Ronald Cuevas.*fn3 After a petition and a court trial, the court committed Ronald to the Director of the Department for a year beginning on July 11, 2011.*fn4

On appeal, Ronald asserts there were constitutional defects in his commitment. He argues that People v. Bailie (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 841 (Bailie) and People v. Sweeney (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 210 (Sweeney) require the petition to allege and the court to find not simply that he is mentally retarded and dangerous, but that his mental retardation is a cause of his dangerousness. He also asserts that there was insufficient evidence to support such a finding.

Ronald originally also contended that he was entitled to a jury trial as he did not personally waive jury trial after receiving judicial advice of his right. In supplemental briefing, however, Ronald has conceded that the California Supreme Court has recently held that neither due process nor equal protection requires judicial advice or personal waiver of the right to a jury trial by a person alleged to be mentally retarded. (People v. Barrett (2012) 54 Cal.4th 1081, 1105-1106, 1109 (Barrett).)

In response to our requests for supplemental briefing, the parties agree that section 6500 should be construed to authorize commitment only if a person's "mental retardation is a substantial factor in causing her serious difficulty in controlling her dangerous behavior." (Sweeney, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th 210, 225.) The Attorney General further acknowledges that "neither of the experts explicitly stated that [Ronald's] mental retardation was a substantial cause or factor in his dangerous lack of self control," but nevertheless asserts that the evidence supports that conclusion. The Attorney General does not assert that the petition included such an allegation or that the trial court expressly made such a finding.

After reviewing the record, we will agree with Ronald that he should not have been committed under the existing legal standard, as there was no substantial evidence that he has a dangerous lack of self control resulting from his mental retardation. For the reasons stated more fully below, we will reverse the commitment order.

2. trial court proceedings A. petition

On March 15, 2011, the Santa Clara County District Attorney filed a petition asking the court to commit Ronald Cuevas "to involuntary treatment at California Psychiatric Transitions (CPT) for a period not to exceed one year." The petition was based upon reports from the San Andreas Regional Center and the Department of Developmental Services which concluded, among other things, "that Respondent is a person mentally retarded and is a danger to himself or others." The petition was requested by Vasantha Siddappa, a service coordinator from the Regional Center, which was responsible for the care, support, and maintenance of Ronald. Ronald was then residing in the Barbara Aarons Pavillion ("BAP"), the mental health wing of Valley Medical Center in San Jose. Attached to the petition were confidential documents including a nine-page typed declaration by Siddappa reviewing Ronald's history since birth in January 1966, with emphasis on the psychological treatment he had received since 1992, and a four-page typed psychological evaluation and diagnosis by a psychologist, Dr. Gerri Walker.

B. pretrial proceedings

On March 15, 2011, the court made a temporary order placing Ronald in the custody of the Director of the Department for placement at CPT upon his release from BAP. This order was renewed on March 22, 2011. Court trial was originally scheduled for April 4, 2011, but was continued to June 9, with a readiness hearing on May 23.

On May 23, 2011, Ronald, his brother Rodney, his psychologist, and his caseworker, Siddapa, appeared. The People agreed to return Ronald home for two weeks so long as Rodney promised to provide 24-hour supervision. The June 9 trial date was vacated.

On June 6, 2011, after an in-chambers hearing, Ronald was returned to BAP, and trial was scheduled for July 11.

C. court trial (1). The People's evidence

Court trial was held on July 11, 2011. The People presented one witness, Gerri Walker, a clinical psychologist who had been part of Ronald's treatment team since March 2011. Over objection, the court also accepted into evidence the report on which the petition was based, including Walker's own evaluation and diagnosis of Ronald and his caseworker's review of his treatment history.*fn5

There was no dispute at trial that Ronald is mentally retarded. Walker's written report described Ronald's mild intellectual disability secondary to hydrocephaly at birth. She testified that "[h]is intellectual cognitive functioning is such that he is labeled as mental retardation" or developmental delay. Walker testified further that Ronald's mental health diagnosis is "paranoid psychosis NOS" (not otherwise specified) with delusional ideation.

A. Ronald's History Since 1992

The caseworker's report provided the following history for Ronald from 1992 through the filing of the petition in May 2010. Signs of mental illness manifested on August 23, 1992, when Ronald had a violent outburst in his family home, threatening to kill himself or his twin brother Rodney. He was reported as delusional as early as 1999, admitting to hearing voices of people at night whom he thought were coming into his house to steal his checks. He called people on the phone incessantly.

On August 19, 2010, the police were called by the crisis support team in response to a serious telephone threat by Ronald.

On September 24, 2010, Ronald discontinued taking Abilify along with other medications, as he had sometimes done since he began taking Abilify in 2004. On October 21, 2010, his treatment team agreed to a trial period of not taking Abilify. His thinking was reported to be much clearer for a few weeks, but paranoia and delusions eventually recurred.

In November 2010, Ronald had to relocate from an apartment in which he had lived for many years. He moved into an apartment in Campbell owned by his parents. He was delusional about his parents coming into his apartment and taking his papers. He believed his mother was coming in through the front door and the window and taking his money and other items. He also thought the neighbors were taking his groceries. He was reported to be making excessive phone calls to the Campbell Police Department, his mother, the caseworker, Crisis Support Services, and staff from the day program and supported living services. Neighbors reported him as talking and yelling on the telephone at all hours of the night. He often refused help with cleaning his apartment, shopping for groceries, and planning and making meals.

In March 2011, a court investigator and support personnel who worked with Ronald reported that he was leaving phone messages about death, the death penalty, the death penalty for his parents, his personal disappearance and regret at being born.

According to Walker's written evaluation, on March 9, 2011, Ronald's mother called the police after he left notes asking other tenants not to take things from his apartment. He also left one of his medications at the doorstep of a neighbor with young children. He told his mother if the children ingested the pills, they would know how he feels when he takes them. On March 10, 2011, he was taken to BAP. On March 11, 2011, Ronald told Walker and Siddapa that he wanted to give his neighbors one pill and his parents another pill that would do them harm. He told Walker that he was in the hospital because he had tried to prevent his neighbors from breaking into his home and because his parents were stealing his money from the bank.*fn6

B. Testimony of Clinical Psychologist Gerri Walker

Clinical Psychologist Gerri Walker testified that Ronald's parents live in Lake County. He had threatened to kill his mother without saying how he would. He did not want her to be his conservator. His residence was dirty because he did not want support services coming in to clean it.

Walker described the failure of the trial home placement of Ronald that began on May 23, 2011. After his brother Rodney promised to provide full-time supervision, Rodney left town within the first 24 hours. Ronald became assaultive with Rodney and locked him out of the apartment. Ronald lost track of what day it was, did not take his medication, and became delusional. He found an empty medication container for his father and became upset that his father was trying to poison him. He called the police department multiple times. "It escalated and then he was 5150-ed."*fn7

The workers at BAP reported that Ronald had to be restrained after spitting at and pushing a person. He was most recently restrained on June 16, 2011.

In Walker's opinion, Ronald "would be a risk to himself" if not placed in a secure facility like BAP "because he continues to have the delusional ideation. He continues to think that things are happening that are not. He still has poor anger management and he becomes very upset when things don't go his way. And because of that, it would be a risk for him and others who are around him." Based on his history, Walker testified that Ronald would not be medication compliant without supervision. Walker was not asked whether Ronald's mental retardation was a cause of his delusions or paranoid psychosis.

On cross-examination, Walker acknowledged that Ronald does not have command delusions that tell him to harm himself or others. She also acknowledged that Ronald's phone calling had not placed anyone in danger, and he has not actually harmed himself or threatened to do so.*fn8 But she testified that Ronald "is a danger to himself because he does--I know that he has walked in crosswalks and put up his hands, and someone could easily run him over."

(2). Defense evidence A. Ronald's Testimony

Ronald testified on his own behalf. He admitted that when he was recently placed at home he did not want his brother in his apartment. He remembered that he locked Rodney out after an altercation, but he did not remember why. He remembered Rodney leaving for about 12 hours.

He also remembered that he stopped taking Abilify the prior September. He said both that he stopped taking the medication for one day because it was too much for him and that he was off it for a couple of months. He was taking it at the time of trial and would continue to do so, along with his other medications. His problems with Rodney had been resolved. He would like to live in his apartment and is willing to accept help from support services. And he testified that he called the regional support center "[o]nce in a great while" about receiving his money.

B. Rodney's Testimony

Ronald's twin brother Rodney explained that his brother had lived for 12 years in another apartment with the help of a day program that came to Ronald's house and an in-home program to keep the house clean and take him grocery shopping. Ronald subsequently moved into a Campbell apartment owned by their parents.

Rodney admitted that he heard the court tell him that he was to supervise Ronald 24 hours a day during his recent release. He explained that the release was sudden, so, while Ronald was sleeping the morning after the release, Rodney ...


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