San Diego County prosecutors have identified a second person wrongfully committed to a California state hospital for more than two decades, raising questions about commitment oversight and whether more offenders are currently unlawfully incarcerated across the state.
NBC 7 was first to report the story of Alan Alter, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was held unlawfully in a state hospital for nearly 24 years until his release in mid-January.
Questions about Alter’s case and requests for records concerning the state’s Mentally Disordered Offender or MDO program led the San Diego County District Attorney’s office to launch an immediate review of offenders committed under the program.
Legislators created the MDO program in 1986 to hold criminal offenders suffering mental illnesses in California state hospitals longer than their parole end dates if the state determines they still pose a risk to themselves or society.
Offenders who legally qualify for the MDO program must have committed certain “qualifying offenses” or crimes of force or violence, according to the law.
But NBC 7 found at least two San Diego County cases where people had been held for decades on offenses that were not legally qualifying for the program.
According to the District Attorney’s office, Rance E. Winters, 62, was committed to the MDO program back in 1999 after pleading guilty to starting a grass fire with paint thinner two years earlier and having his parole revoked. The California Board of Parole Hearings approved Winters’ commitment to the MDO program.
Winters’ offense -- unlawfully starting a fire or penal code 452(c) -- is not a legally qualifying offense for confinement past an offender’s release date under the MDO law. And now, the DA’s office said it has “notified Mr. Winters' attorney in the Public Defender's Office so steps can be taken to end Mr. Winters' participation in the MDO program.”
Winters could be released from the state hospital depending on a Judge’s ruling on the matter. His next court appearance is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.
A spokesperson for the DA's office said the goal moving forward is to provide “for (Winters’) ongoing psychiatric care in a setting that continues to benefit his mental health and the public's safety.”
District Attorney records show Winters pleaded guilty to starting the fire on Feb. 7, 1997, leading to a sentence of five years in prison. On April 22, 1999, Winters was granted parole but failed to report to his assigned parole officer and a month later his parole was revoked, the DA's office said.
Four months later, on Sept. 17, 1999, Winters was committed to a state hospital under the MDO program.
According to the District Attorney's office, Winters’ parole end date would have been in 2002 if it wasn’t for his involuntary confinement to a state hospital. With his commitment to the MDO program, Winters has been in a state hospital nearly every day for the last 21 years.
MDO commitments require annual extensions approved by a judge in a hearing setting, including prosecutors and offenders with their public defender present. But the San Diego County public defender appointed to represent Winters did not catch the qualifying offense provision back in 1999 or during each of Winters’ MDO extension hearings in the years that followed.
The San Diego County Public Defender’s office said Winters was one of 125 cases currently under review for potential oversights but did not comment further on the matter.
The DA’s office said during past annual MDO petition extension hearings, “the court, defense attorney, and prosecutors have all focused primarily on a review of a doctor's recommendations and the individual's agreement to continue participating in the MDO program."
Unlawful MDO commitments discovered following NBC 7's questions about the program have changed the way MDO extensions will be handled moving forward.
Prosecutors will now “conduct a review of the individual's criminal history and original conviction to confirm they continue to qualify for the program," a statement from the District Attorney's office said.
Prosecutors said Winters had agreed to his annual MDO commitment extension “every year back to 2002,” except “during a court trial in 2010.”
In 2010, despite Winters’ objections to being confined in the MDO program, Superior Court Judge Roger Krauel approved the DA’s petition and extended Winters’ commitment to a state hospital.
But a few months after that ruling, the DA said state hospital staff evaluated Winters and he was briefly released for a few months under the Community Release Program (CONREP.) Winters ultimately violated his supervised release conditions and prosecutors said he was returned to a state hospital on Jan. 12, 2011 -- back into the MDO program where he currently resides.
Attempts by NBC 7 to reach Winters’ family were unsuccessful.
The District Attorney’s office said up until a 2003 state court of appeals case, the law spelling out qualifying offenses for the MDO program was “unclear” and that “there was nothing concrete” stating an offender convicted of unlawfully starting a fire was ineligible for this program.
In that 2003 ruling -- in the case of People v. Rudolf Hayes -- the state court of appeals affirmed that the offense of unlawfully starting a fire “was not a qualifying crime under the MDO law.” The court concluded that “the Legislature did not intend to include recklessly causing a fire among the offenses that qualify for commitment as an MDO.”
Dana Simas, speaking on behalf of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), said it was the state’s position that “at the time of (Winters’) MDO evaluation, penal code 452 was a qualifying offense.”
Other attorneys have disagreed with the CDCR's reading of the law, including Rod Jones, who represented Rudolf Hayes in that 2003 state appeals court ruling, and Jeremy Price, an attorney with the First District Appellate Project, a nonprofit law firm that is well-versed in the MDO law.
Winters is not the only person identified so far as being unlawfully held in the MDO program.
The District Attorney’s office’s review of all San Diego County defendants committed to the MDO program came after NBC 7’s questions in response to news of another man committed to the program for more than two decades.
This month, Vietnam War veteran Alan Alter, 71, was released from a state hospital after being held in the MDO program for nearly 24 years. Alter’s offense was the same as Winters: unlawfully starting a fire back in 1986.
NBC 7 was there when Alter was released from confinement into the arms of his brother who was waiting outside of the San Diego County jail downtown.
To read NBC 7’s story that started all of this, click here.
Since NBC 7 published its story on Alter, new details about his military service have come to light. According to Alter’s attorney Patrick Dudley, Alter was awarded several service medals for his heroic efforts in the Vietnam War.
Dudley told NBC 7 that the Veteran Affairs (VA) informed him that Alter had received the National Defense & Vietnam Service Medals for his efforts in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970.
Following Alter’s release from state hospital custody, his family is now seeking out the best future care route and hopes to eventually move him closer to relatives in Colorado or Arizona.
At the time of Alter’s release, Dudley suspected there might be more individuals committed to state hospitals who should not be there.
“There's not a lot of doubt about the fact that these folks have a mental illness,” Dudley said. “But this is the key.. You shouldn't be in a program that you're not (legally) eligible for. That you don't have a qualifying offense that qualifies you for.”
Dudley continued, “To imagine there's not someone else out there or several people, I think, is unrealistic.”
With these apparent oversights aside, the District Attorney’s office stressed that the MDO program plays a vital role.
“The MDO program continues to be an important and critical option for individuals with severe psychiatric challenges who are no longer incarcerated but continue to be a danger to themselves or others and cannot be released into the community,” a statement from the DA reads.
While prosecutors said the MDO program and the law behind it play an essential role in keeping society safe, some legal scholars voiced fears that it’s being wielded unfairly against mentally ill people.
Grant Morris, J.D., is a retired law professor who taught at the University of San Diego School of Law and was acting Dean of the school on several occasions. Most of Morris’ published work has focused on mentally ill people and how laws have related to them -- often in challenging ways.
When it comes to the MDO law, Morris voiced concerns that it could be abusive to those with mental illnesses, especially regarding Alan Alter’s case.
“My concern is that the finding that a person is mentally ill has been used against that person in essence,” Morris said. “I'm not saying that we shouldn't be concerned if a person is truly dangerous and needs to be detained and treated. But to have special laws that allow indefinite detention in which the person is confined involuntarily, that's very much like saying, ‘He's a prisoner, he continues to be a prisoner for the rest of his life,’ and that to me is just wrong.”
Morris said civil commitment laws are in place for cases where people are dangerous to others because of their mental illness. But the MDO law is unnecessary, Morris noted, and ultimately is used to extend a person’s incarceration past their ordered sentence date.
“They're combining the fact that he was a prisoner, and that he was guilty of a crime even if it was a fairly minor crime as is true in the other case involving Mr. Alter,” Morris said. “It's the combination of ‘this is a guilty person, this is an evil person. He's got a mental illness, and we're concerned about him the future.’”
Morris added, “Society has a right to be concerned about whether a person will act out because of mental illness and cause harm to other people. But if there's no indication, other than that he is mentally ill and is acting inappropriately but is not dangerous, then he should not be involuntarily committed.”
Questions for the CDCR about whether the latest revelations call for a statewide audit of the offenders committed to the MDO program have gone unanswered.
Since November 2020, NBC 7 has been trying to obtain statewide records showing all offenders committed to a state hospital under the MDO program since the program’s inception in 1986.
Three agencies that play a role in managing the MDO program -- the CDCR, Department of State Hospitals, and California Correctional Health Care Services -- said one agency alone stores that information: the California Board of Parole Hearings.
A spokesperson for the Board of Parole Hearings previously said the agency is working on locating those records but has not given a date when they plan to release them.