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Veteran’s lawsuit over 20-year mental health confinement gets green light from judge

A Vietnam veteran can proceed with claims his public defender failed to discover that he wasn't eligible for involuntary confinement.

(CN) — San Diego County must face claims brought by a Vietnam veteran who says he was mistakenly confined as a mentally disordered offender for 20 years because the county's public defenders representing him didn't know the law.

U.S. District Judge Linda Lopez in San Diego on Tuesday denied the county's bid to dismiss the lawsuit by Alan Alter. The judge wasn't persuaded by the county's arguments that Alter's claims that his constitutional rights were violated are either barred by the U.S. Supreme Court or aren't sufficiently detailed for the case to proceed.

"Plaintiff alleges a training policy that amounts to deliberate indifference because all that was required to prevent his alleged constitutional violation was for any one of his lawyers to analyze his eligibility for involuntary commitment — yet the training and supervision policies and practices of defendant county did not instruct its attorneys to do so," Lopez wrote. "In other words, plaintiff alleges a continued, yearslong pattern of adherence to training and supervision policies and practice that defendant county should have known failed to prevent certain conduct by attorneys who represented clients in MDO hospital extension hearings."

Attorneys for San Diego County didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling.

Alter sued the county in September 2021 claiming municipal liability related to unlawful policies and practices as well as professionally negligence.

The 72-year-old veteran says in his complaint that he suffers from severe mental illness that dates back to 1975 when he was discharged from the Marine Corps after seeing combat in Vietnam. He is represented in the lawsuit by his brother as a guardian at litem.

In 1996, he was sentenced to two years in state prison, related to a violation of his probation for a 1987 conviction for "recklessly causing a fire of structure or forest land." Alter claims that at the end of his prison term, rather than being paroled he was erroneously committed to Atascadero State Hospital as a “mentally disordered offender" where he had to serve his parole.

From 2000 to 2018, Alter claims he was kept confined because at his annual hospital extension hearings he was represented by deputy public defenders who didn't review the relevant statute and were unaware that his underlying criminal conviction didn't make him eligible for involuntary confinement as a mentally disordered offender.

It wasn't until 2018 that a newly assigned public defender realized Alter couldn't be kept confined against his will under the statute and sought to dismiss a new petition to extend his confinement. That attempt failed but the following year the judge appointed a criminal defense attorney in private practice to represent Alter in his hearing.

This attorney filed a habeas corpus petition in 2020 asserting ineffective assistance of the county's public defenders, which led to a California judge to order the county to explain why Alter shouldn't be released. The San Diego DA subsequently dropped the pending petitions to extent Alter's involuntary confinement and he was released in 2021.

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