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Editorial: Sealing records of psychiatric patients under state care is cause for alarm

William “Bill” Sutherland is not behind bars, nor is he free. Sutherland has been confined to state psychiatric hospitals since pleading “not responsible by reason of mental illness” to a felony arson charge in 2000.

Sutherland’s plea got him out of serving prison time. A judge ordered him held in custody of the state Office of Mental Health for at least six months, which has stretched into 18-plus years. On repeated occasions state psychiatrists have examined Sutherland and concluded he was not ready to be released.

His plight only came into public view because Sutherland and his lawyer made a News reporter aware of his case. Many similar cases never come to light in New York; courts usually seal such records, ostensibly to protect the patient under medical privacy laws. However, any system in which designees of the government decide whether a person goes free or remains confined demands public visibility. Sealing records should be a last resort for judges, not their default choice.

There are about 495 inpatients like Sutherland confined to New York psychiatric facilities because they were found “not responsible” for criminal acts due to mental illness. In Sutherland’s case, investigators said he started a fire that caused $100,000 damage to an apartment house at 857 Delaware Ave., owned by Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino. There were no injuries reported in the building, which was occupied by about 15 people.

Officers who arrested Sutherland said he claimed he was the son of mafia boss John Gotti. They said he threatened officers and made death threats against Paladino. After a series of mental health examinations, doctors called him “dangerously mentally ill” at the time.

Sutherland and his lawyer, James S. Hinman, are trying to convince a state judge to allow Sutherland to live and work in the community as an outpatient. We don’t know if that would be wise or not. But we know such decisions shouldn’t be made in secret.

When cases like Sutherland’s arise, in which so-called procedure law patients are put in the custody of the state Office of Mental Health, the state is obligated to inform the Mental Hygiene Legal Service, the state’s public defense agency for psychiatric patients. Lawyers from that office represent the interests of the patients. They will typically ask a court to seal the records to protect the patients’ privacy. Not all judges grant that request, but most do.

When the initial court proceeding is held in which a suspect is charged with a crime, and he or she enters a plea of not guilty by reason of mental illness, that event is part of the public record. It’s after the plea is accepted and the person put into the custody of the Office of Mental Health when the patient’s records may be sealed.

There are many good reasons for protecting the privacy of someone being treated for mental illness. At the same time, the prospect of having a friend or family member confined to psychiatric care, with only government designees deciding when that confinement may end – and the deliberations done away from public scrutiny – is a worrisome prospect.

The ability to deprive a citizen of liberty is an awesome, if necessary, power. It requires oversight. Let’s hope that courts think twice – or more – before putting a psychiatric patient’s records under lock and key. More than that, Albany needs to revisit this legislation to ensure that the state cannot stash someone away while keeping the public ignorant. It’s dangerous.

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