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decided: May 21, 1962.



Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart; Frankfurter took no part in the decision of this case; White took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Harlan

[ 369 U.S. Page 706]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a habeas corpus proceeding instituted in the District Court by the petitioner, presently confined in Saint Elizabeths Hospital for the insane pursuant to a commitment under D.C. Code § 24-301 (d), to test the legality of his detention. The District Court, holding that petitioner had been unlawfully committed, directed his release from custody unless civil commitment proceedings (D.C. Code § 21-310) were begun within 10 days of the court's order. The Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, reversed by a divided vote. 109 U. S. App. D.C. 404, 288 F.2d 388. Since the petition for certiorari raised important questions regarding the procedure for confining the criminally insane in the District of Columbia and suggested possible constitutional infirmities in § 24-301 (d) as applied in the circumstances of this case, we granted the writ. 366 U.S. 958.

Two informations filed in the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia on November 6, 1959, charged petitioner with having violated D.C. Code § 22-1410 by drawing and negotiating checks in the amount of $50 each with knowledge that he did not have sufficient funds or credit with the drawee bank for payment. On the same day, petitioner appeared in Municipal Court to answer these charges and a plea of not guilty was recorded. He was thereupon committed under D.C. Code § 24-301 (a) to the District of Columbia General Hospital for a mental examination to determine his competence to stand trial.*fn1 On December 4, 1959, the Assistant Chief Psychiatrist of

[ 369 U.S. Page 707]

     the Hospital reported that petitioner's mental condition was such that he was then "of unsound mind, unable to adequately understand the charges and incapable of assisting counsel in his own defense." The case was continued while petitioner was given treatment at the General Hospital.

On December 28, 1959, the Assistant Chief Psychiatrist sent a letter to the court advising that petitioner had "shown some improvement and at this time appears able to understand the charges against him, and to assist counsel in his own defense." This communication also noted that it was the psychiatrist's opinion that petitioner "was suffering from a mental disease, i. e., a manic depressive psychosis, at the time of the crime charged," such that the crime "would be a product of this mental disease." As for petitioner's current condition, the psychiatrist added that petitioner "appears to be in an early stage of recovery from manic depressive psychosis," but that it was "possible that he may have further lapses of judgment in the near future." He stated that it "would be advisable for him to have a period of further treatment in a psychiatric hospital."

Petitioner was brought to trial the following day in the Municipal Court before a judge without a jury. The record before us contains no transcript of the proceedings,*fn2 but it is undisputed that petitioner, represented by counsel, sought at that time to withdraw the earlier plea of not guilty and to plead guilty to both informations. The trial judge refused to allow the change of plea, apparently on the basis of the Hospital's report that petitioner's commission of the alleged offenses was the product of mental illness.

[ 369 U.S. Page 708]

     At the trial one of the prosecution's witnesses, a physician representing the General Hospital's Psychiatric Division, testified, over petitioner's objection, that petitioner's crimes had been committed as a result of mental illness. Although petitioner never claimed that he had not been mentally responsible when the offenses were committed and presented no evidence to support an acquittal by reason of insanity, the trial judge concluded that petitioner was "not guilty on the ground that he was insane at the time of the commission of the offense."*fn3 The court then ordered that petitioner be committed to Saint Elizabeths Hospital as prescribed by D.C. Code § 24-301 (d), which reads:

"(d) If any person tried upon an indictment or information for an offense, or tried in the juvenile court of the District of Columbia for an offense, is acquitted solely on the ground that he was insane at the time of its commission, the court shall order such person to be confined in a hospital for the mentally ill."

There can be no doubt as to the effect of this provision with respect to a defendant who has asserted a defense of insanity at some point during the trial. By its plain terms it directs confinement in a mental hospital of any criminal defendant in the District of Columbia who is "acquitted solely on the ground" that his offense was committed while he was mentally irresponsible, and forecloses the trial judge from exercising any discretion in this regard. Nor does the statute require a finding by the trial judge or jury, or by a medical board, with respect to the accused's mental health on the date of the judgment of acquittal. The sole necessary and sufficient condition for bringing the compulsory commitment provision into

[ 369 U.S. Page 709]

     play is that the defendant be found not guilty of the crime with which he is charged because of insanity "at the time of its commission."*fn4 Petitioner does not contend that the statute was misinterpreted in these respects.

Petitioner maintains, however, that his confinement is illegal for a variety of other reasons, among which is the assertion that the "mandatory commitment" provision, as applied to an accused who protests that he is presently sane and that the crime he committed was not the product of mental illness, deprives one so situated of liberty without due process of law.*fn5 We find it unnecessary to consider

[ 369 U.S. Page 710]

     this and other constitutional claims concerning the fairness of the Municipal Court proceeding, since we read § 24-301 (d) as applicable only to a defendant acquitted on the ground of insanity who has affirmatively relied upon a defense of insanity, and not to one, like the petitioner, who has maintained that he was mentally responsible when the alleged offense was committed.*fn6

The decisions of this Court have repeatedly warned against the dangers of an approach to statutory construction which confines itself to the bare words of a statute, e. g., Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 459-462; Markham v. Cabell, 326 U.S. 404, 409, for "literalness may strangle meaning," Utah Junk Co. v. Porter, 328 U.S. 39, 44. Heeding that principle we conclude that to construe § 24-301 (d) as applying only to criminal defendants who have interposed a defense of insanity is more consistent with the general pattern of laws governing the confinement of the mentally ill in the District of Columbia, and with the congressional policy that impelled the enactment of this mandatory commitment provision, than would be a literal reading of the section. That construction finds further support in the rule

[ 369 U.S. Page 711]

     that a statute should be interpreted, if fairly possible, in such a way as to free it from not insubstantial constitutional doubts. E. g., United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, 241 U.S. 394, 401; International Assn. of Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740, 749. Such doubts might arise in this case were the Government's construction of § 24-301 (d) to be accepted.


To construe § 24-301 (d) as requiring a court, without further proceedings, automatically to commit a defendant who, as in the present case, has competently and advisedly not tendered a defense of insanity to the crime charged and has not been found incompetent at the time of commitment is out of harmony with the awareness that Congress has otherwise shown for safeguarding those suspected of mental incapacity against improvident confinement.

Thus, a civil commitment must commence with the filing of a verified petition and supporting affidavits. D.C. Code § 21-310. This is followed by a preliminary examination by the staff of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a hearing before the Commission on Mental Health, and then another hearing in the District Court, which must be before a jury if the person being committed demands one. D.C. Code § 21-311. At both of these hearings representation by counsel or by a guardian ad litem is necessary. Dooling v. Overholser, 100 U. S. App. D.C. 247, 243 F.2d 825, construing D.C. Code §§ 21-308, 21-311. The burden of proof is on the party seeking commitment, and it is only if the trier of fact is "satisfied that the alleged insane person is insane," that he may be committed "for the best interest of the public and of the insane person." D.C. Code § 21-315.*fn7

[ 369 U.S. Page 712]

     Likewise, Congress has afforded protection from improvident commitment to an accused in a criminal case who appears to the trial court "from the court's own observations, or from prima facie evidence submitted to the court . . . [to be] of unsound mind or . . . mentally incompetent so as to be unable to understand the proceedings against him or properly to assist in his own defense." D.C. Code § 24-301 (a). In such circumstances preliminary commitment for a "reasonable period" is authorized in order to permit observation and examination. If the medical report shows that the accused is of unsound mind, the court may "commit by order the accused to a hospital for the mentally ill unless the accused or the Government objects." (Emphasis added.) In case of objection, there must be a judicial determination with respect to the accused's mental health, and it is only "if the court shall find the accused to be then of unsound mind or mentally incompetent to stand trial" that an order for continued commitment is permissible. Hence if the accused denies that he is mentally ill, he is entitled to a judicial determination of his present mental state despite the hospital board's certification that he is of unsound mind. And it should be noted that the burden rests with the party seeking commitment to prove that the accused is "then of unsound mind." D.C. Code § 24-301 (a).

Considering the present case against this background, we should be slow in our reading of § 24-301 (d) to attribute to Congress a purpose to compel commitment of

[ 369 U.S. Page 713]

     an accused who never throughout the criminal proceedings suggests that he is, or ever was, mentally irresponsible.*fn8 This is the more so when there is kept in mind the contrast between the nature of an acquittal by reason of insanity and the finding of insanity required in other kinds of commitment proceedings. In the District of Columbia, as in all federal courts, an accused "is entitled to an acquittal of the specific crime charged if upon all the evidence there is reasonable doubt whether he was capable in law of committing crime." Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 484. See, e. g., Isaac v. United States, 109 U. S. App. D.C. 34, 284 F.2d 168. Compare Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790. Consequently, the trial judge or jury must reach a judgment or verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity even if the evidence as to mental responsibility at the time the offense was committed raises no more than a reasonable doubt of sanity. If § 24-301 (d) were taken to apply to petitioner's situation, there would be an anomalous disparity between what

[ 369 U.S. Page 714]

     § 24-301 (d) commands and what § 24-301 (a) forbids. On the one hand, § 24-301 (d) would compel post-trial commitment upon the suggestion of the Government and over the objection of the accused merely on evidence introduced by the Government that raises a reasonable doubt of the accused's sanity as of the time at which the offense was committed. On the other hand, § 24-301 (a) would prohibit pretrial commitment upon the suggestion of the Government and over the objection of the accused, although the record contained an affirmative medical finding of present insanity, unless the Government is able to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the accused is presently of unsound mind.

Of course the posttrial commitment of § 24-301 (d) presupposes a determination that the accused has committed the criminal act with which he is charged, whereas pretrial commitment antedates any such finding of guilt. But the fact that the accused has pleaded guilty or that, overcoming some defense other than insanity, the Government has established that he committed a criminal act constitutes only strong evidence that his continued liberty could imperil "the preservation of public peace." It no more rationally justifies his indeterminate commitment to a mental institution on a bare reasonable doubt as to ...

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