In the Matter of EAL

In the Matter of EAL, 2015 MT 203 (July 21, 2015) (Wheat, J.; McKinnon, J., dissenting) (4-1, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court’s finding that EAL posed an imminent threat of harm was clearly erroneous; and (2) whether the district court erred in basing findings of fact on statements made in the state’s petition for commitment.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) no.


Facts: EAL, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and antisocial personality traits, was evaluated by a mental health professional in Libby, who opined that EAL posed an imminent risk of danger to himself and others and recommended detention at St. Patrick Hospital. A petition setting for these facts was filed on May 30, 2014, and on the same day the district court found probable cause and ordered EAL be detained and evaluated.

On June 4, 2014, the court held a hearing at which EAL was present and represented by counsel. EAL testified, as did G. Walker Smith, a licensed clinical professional counselor who evaluated EAL shortly before the hearing. He opined that EAL was a danger to himself and others and was unable to care for himself. He recommended commitment to the Montana State Hospital, with involuntary medication if necessary.

EAL testified that he took his medication, that he did not want to hurt anyone, and that he did not need to be committed.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court committed EAL to MSH for 90 days. EAL appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Smith’s testimony provided substantial evidence that supported the court’s findings. Contradictory evidence or minor inconsistencies are insufficient to hold that findings were clearly erroneous.

(2) Even if the district court’s use of findings from the state’s petition were erroneous, it was harmless. Smith’s testimony provided substantial evidence that EAL posed an imminent threat of injury.

Justice McKinnon’s Dissent: The only evidence a court may rely on in issuing an order of commitment is evidence presented at trial. Smith’s testimony was unclear as to whether EAL actually made threats during the evaluation. The state is required by statute to prove an “overt act.” Not every threat is an overt act. Here there was no competent evidence that EAL threatened to hurt people with a machete. Smith’s opinion is insufficient unless supported by evidence of an overt act. MCA § 53-21-126(4). Justice McKinnon would reverse.