State Politics

Patients in crisis can become felons under battery law, warns lawmaker urging change

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa.
Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa. kjones@idahostatesman.com

A Canyon County legislator has proposed carving out a mental health exception to a felony battery law meant to protect health care workers.

The bill was introduced last week in the Idaho House by Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa and a candidate this year for Congress. It comes amid several criminal cases that likely wouldn’t exist under the change — including one against a troubled 14-year-old boy.

“It is difficult enough to endure a mental health crisis, but to be faced with legal ramifications while in this ‘state of mind’ is unfathomable to many, myself included,” said Christa Smith of Boise, the mother of the 14-year-old. She told the Statesman she wanted to share her son’s story because she hopes the law will be changed.

The 2014 law made battery of health care workers a felony.

Those workers have among the highest rates of on-the-job violence. Nurses, doctors, hospital security guards and others in Idaho have reported being stalked by angry patients, punched and kicked by patients who are drunk or high, attacked by patients who wanted prescription opioids, and injured so badly that they cannot work.

The statute has been used hundreds of times since 2014, mostly in Ada County. But an analysis of court cases by the Idaho Statesman found that prosecutors have used the law to charge people whose mental illness either caused or contributed to their behavior.

Defendants in 14 out of 36 recent cases reviewed by the Statesman likely fit that criteria. At the time of their arrest, they were at the health care facility to get psychiatric treatment, were there on an emergency mental hold, had severe mental illnesses, or their sentence acknowledged their mental illness by requiring medication or therapy. (Those 14 cases do not include incidents where records suggest the defendant was on drugs or alcohol.)

Almost all the defendants, faced with the prospect of a three-year jail sentence and a felony record, pleaded guilty to violent misdemeanors.

The bill would amend the law so that it cannot be used to charge people who were in treatment or in the process of seeking treatment for mental illness. (State law defines mental illness as “a substantial disorder of thought, mood, perception, orientation or memory, which grossly impairs judgment, behavior, or capacity to recognize and adapt to reality.”)

“We still want to protect health care workers, but we also don’t want to go too far and take people who are having a mental health crisis and make them felons,” Perry told the House Local Government Committee, which she chairs.

Committee members unanimously agreed Monday to print the bill. They referred it to the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee, where its next step will be a public hearing.

The two felonies filed against Smith’s son are still pending.

Smith got a phone call in November, saying her son was suicidal and “standing in the kitchen with a knife to his chest.” She called police, who arrived at the house. The boy told them “he wanted to die,” Smith said.

He was taken to a local emergency room until the next day, when a bed opened up for him at Intermountain Hospital, a Boise psychiatric facility that takes adolescents.

The boy, who has been diagnosed with several psychological disorders, stayed at Intermountain for about a month, Smith said. He made some progress but still was struggling. He was “emotionally distraught and completely not himself,” she said.

One day in mid-December, the family went to Intermountain to talk about possible next steps for the boy — residential treatment or a state hospital commitment.

That day and the day before, he had pushed, or pushed a cart into, two hospital employees, according to Smith and court documents. Both of them decided to press charges.

“He’s 14, and the person isn’t even injured,” Smith said. “Why would [they] do that to him?”

A call to Intermountain was not returned Friday.

Smith’s son was allowed to go home instead of juvenile detention. He is now at a treatment center in Texas, “making great progress,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, he’s scheduled for a plea hearing in Boise in June. That’s shortly after his therapists in Texas expect he’ll be well enough to go home.

“What frustrates me is you put him in a facility to keep him safe, and he walks out with charges, and as a mom, I feel like I failed him,” Smith said. “It’s not like he was walking around the Walmart and beating people up. He was at a facility where he was meant to get help.”

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Want to talk about mental health with other Idahoans? Want to hear from other Idahoans who’ve been where you are, or who know what resources are available? Join our new Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/IdahoMentalHealth

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @audreydutton

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