Psychiatric Testimony and the SVPA (Part 2)

by | May 20, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The New Jersey Supreme Court continued in relevant part: The Appellate Division has determined that both N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.13 and Rule 4:74-7(e) require that a psychiatrist on the patient’s treatment team testify at the hearing, and provide medical testimony supporting the need for commitment. Because the SVPA does not define the phrase “to the clinical basis for the need for involuntary commitment,” the Court interprets that language according to its generally accepted meaning. The Court reviews the definitions of “basis” and “need” and notes that the statute’s express focus on testimony by a psychiatrist, who holds a medical degree, cannot be interpreted to encompass testimony by a psychologist, who does not.

The Legislature has distinguished between psychiatric and psychological experts in the Rules of Evidence. And when it intends that the evaluation of either a psychiatrist or psychologist suffice for a particular purpose, it has said so explicitly. See N.J.S.A. 2C:4- 5. The clear language of N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.30(b) indicates that a psychiatrist must testify to those underlying facts that require involuntary commitment of the individual. It is not enough that a psychiatrist testifies — even if that testimony is against involuntary commitment — and that someone else testifies to the need for commitment.

The Legislature deliberately modeled the SVPA’s commitment procedures after the general civil commitment statute. Five years before the enactment of the SVPA, the Appellate Division held that the language “to the clinical basis for the need for involuntary commitment to treatment” in the civil commitment statute requires the psychiatrist’s testimony to be in support of commitment. See In re Commitment of Raymond S., 263 N.J. Super. 428, 432 (App. Div. 1993).

The State’s creative efforts here tend to undermine the credibility of the psychologist who testified to the need for civil commitment. A more qualified member of the defendant’s treatment team that was called as a State’s witness reached the opposite conclusion of the psychologist.