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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Safety Threat Required to Deny Supervised Outings for Mental Health Facility Resident

A trial judge must loosen restrictions on supervised community outings for man committed to a mental health facility unless prosecutors prove that he poses a threat to public safety or any person, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Jeremy Stutler's request to change his commitment conditions was wrongly rejected by the Stark County Common Pleas Court because it used the wrong standard to determine if he should be granted increased “community movement.”

The decision reversed the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which found the trial judge had the discretion to deny the requested change.

Writing for the Court, Justice Melody Stewart explained that trial courts may have more discretion to approve or deny condition changes for unsupervised visits or the termination of a person’s commitment. However, when a change in supervised conditions is requested by a person committed to a facility by court order, a court can only deny the change if the county prosecutor proves the person is a danger.

Since the trial court may have based its decision to deny additional movement for Stutler for other reasons, the Supreme Court ordered the trial court to conduct further proceedings.


Murder Charge Led to Commitment
In 2012, Stutler was found not guilty by reason of insanity of murder, tampering with evidence , and abuse of a corpse. The trial court committed him to a mental health facility for up to the maximum term that could be imposed if Stutler had been convicted of murder.

Stutler was initially committed to a maximum-security unit of Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare operated by the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services. After a year of treatment at Twin Valley, and on the recommendation of a staff psychologist, the Stark County trial court determined that Stutler’s mental health was sufficiently stable for him to be transferred out of a maximum-security setting.

Stutler was moved to a Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare facility, and in 2014, the trial court granted Stutler “Level III movement” privileges, which allowed him to participate in additional activities at the facility. Later that year, the court permitted supervised leave for Stutler to receive medical treatment not available at Northcoast Behavioral.

Sentencing Judge Reiterates Safety Concerns
In 2015, Northcoast Behavioral’s chief clinical officer requested Stutler be granted “Level IV community movement,” allowing him to leave the facility to go on trips under the supervision of Northcoast Behavioral staff or Stutler’s case manager. The trial court denied the request. Stutler appealed to the Fifth District, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

A second request for fewer restrictions was made in 2017 and again rejected by trial court and affirmed by the Fifth District. A third request was made in 2019, which added a condition that Stutler be monitored by electronic GPS during any outings.

The trial court conducted a hearing on the 2019 request. At the hearing, a psychologist and psychiatrist testified about Stutler’s progress, and Stutler also testified. The Stark County Prosecutor’s Office opposed the change but did not call any witnesses . The prosecutor did cross-examine the psychologist. The trial judge questioned both the psychologist and psychiatrist.

The trial court’s decision provided a detailed history of Stutler’s criminal charges and his behavior while committed. The court noted an incident stemming from Northcoast Behavioral’s failure to properly supervise Stutler during an offsite dental appointment.

In denying the change, the judge stated that the crimes Stutler committed were “violent, lethal, and gruesome.”

“These were not crimes that were committed because of a lapse of judgment, but claimed to be committed due to ‘delusional visions by demons,’” the trial judge said.

The judge noted the court “works within a very small margin,” and if Stutler were to cause serious injuries to another while outside the facility, it would be the court, not the psychiatrist, that would be held responsible.

Stutler appealed the rejection, and the Fifth District affirmed the trial court’s decision. Stutler appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Commitment Law
Justice Stewart explained the Court needed to reconcile two provisions of the statute
governing the commitment of those found not guilty by reason of insanity – one regarding the duty of the prosecutor and the other the power of the trial court.

R.C. 2945.401(G)(2) states that at a hearing considering changes in commitment conditions, the prosecutor “bears the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence” that a proposed change to a less restrictive status represents a threat to public safety or any person. R.C. 2945.401(I) states that at the conclusion of the hearing, “the trial court may approve, disapprove, or modify the recommendations and shall enter an order accordingly.”

The opinion noted that the Fifth District ruled  the inclusion of the word “may” in R.C. 2945.401(I) gave the trial court the discretion to deny Stutler’s commitment change regardless of whether the prosecutor proved he was a threat.

Before the Supreme Court, the Stark County prosecutor maintained the law places the burden initially on Northcoast Behavioral to provide some credible evidence that a change in commitment conditions is warranted, and the prosecutor then has to counter the argument and prove the change would pose a threat. The facility was unable to demonstrate a change was warranted, the prosecution maintained.

The Court stated that the prosecution’s position makes sense under the law when a person is seeking termination of his or her commitment or unsupervised release from the facility. The opinion noted R.C. 2945.401(E) outlines a number of factors a trial court must “consider” when presented with a request for the complete freedom to leave the institution. But those factors are not considered when the request is only for a change in supervised commitment status, the Court concluded.

The Court explained the word “may” in a law usually implies some degree of discretion, but not always, noting that the implication of discretion can be overcome by “indications of legislative intent to the contrary or by obvious inferences from the structure and purpose of the statute.”

Looking to the structure and purpose of the statute, the Court concluded that “[w]hen the recommended change in a person’s commitment status or conditions does not include a request for nonsecured status or termination of the person’s commitment, .  ,  , the prosecution’s burden of proof under R.C. 2945.401(G)(2) remains in full force and effect.”

Since the Fifth District came to the opposite legal conclusion—that the trial court had discretion to deny the requested change in Stutler’s commitment conditions even if the state failed to meet its burden of proof—the Court reversed the Fifth District’s decision. However, the opinion noted that “the state can meet its burden of proof by introducing its own evidence and through cross examining and impeaching Stutler’s evidence.”

Because the state had engaged in some cross examination of one of Stutler’s witnesses, the Court remanded to the Fifth District for further consideration of whether the state met its burden of proving that the requested change in Stutler’s commitment conditions poses a risk to the public.

2021-0428. State v. Stutler, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2792.

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