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San Diego sued for wrongly confining veteran in state hospital for 20 years

The Vietnam veteran was forcibly detained under a program established by a 1985 state law that allows authorities to involuntarily commit people with mental disorders who commit certain crimes.

(CN) — A 72-year-old veteran was mistakenly forcibly committed to a state hospital for 20 years because of nearly two decades of legal malpractice by the San Diego Public Defender’s Office, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

Alan Alter, who served as a marine in the Vietnam War, has struggled with mental illness since he was discharged from the military in 1975, according to this complaint.

In 1987, Alter pleaded guilty to one count of recklessly starting a fire on forest land. Alter’s brother, Mark Alter, told NBC 7 San Diego that his brother started the small 4-by-4-foot fire on the side of Highway 67 in March 1986 because he was “just trying to get someone to stop and basically get him off the highway.”

Alter served a year in jail for the felony fire charge, was released on probation, violated probation and, in 1996, was sentenced to two years in state prison for the parole violation. The California Board of Parole Hearings recommended Alter for a program that allows people with mental disorders to be involuntarily confined to a state hospital if they are convicted of violent crimes or other qualifying offenses. The Offenders with Mental Disorders program was created by a state law passed in 1985.

Through that program, Alter was “erroneously voluntarily committed” to Atascadero State Hospital near San Luis Obispo in January 2000, according to his complaint.

For two decades, multiple public defenders that represented Alter in annual "extension hearings” failed to notice that their client did not qualify for involuntary confinement because his crime was not a violent or eligible offense.

“Defendant County of San Diego, through its public defender and alternate public defender offices, had a pervasive practice and custom of failing to ensure that its attorneys who were assigned to represent MDO clients review the requisite MDO statutes (Penal Code §§ 2960 and 2962) to determine whether their clients were eligible for involuntary commitment under the MDO law,” the 11-page complaint states.

It wasn’t until 2018 when one of Alter’s lawyers noticed the mistake. After a habeas petition was filed, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office agreed to dismiss the MDO proceedings.

Alter was released from involuntary confinement on Jan. 7, 2021.

“The failure of numerous County attorneys who represented plaintiff at annual 'extension hearings' over 17 years, to check the statute to determine whether plaintiff was eligible for extended incarceration under the MDO law, was the moving force and proximate cause of plaintiff being wrongfully incarcerated for approximately 20 years,” the lawsuit states.

Mark Alter told NBC 7 that despite his repeated attempts to visit his brother during his 20 years of confinement, state hospital employees would ignore his calls and forget to send him instructions on how to visit.

Mark is named as his brother’s legal guardian in the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks damages for professional negligence and municipal liability for unlawful polices and practices.

“These employees breached their duty to use reasonable diligence commonly employed by members of the legal profession,” the complaint states.

Alter is represented by attorneys Joseph McMullen, Michael Marrinan and Thomas E. Robertson, all of San Diego.

The San Diego Public Defender’s Office and San Diego County Counsel’s Office did not immediately return phone calls requesting comment Friday.

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