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Davis Signs Bill on Forced Mental Care

Politics: 'Laura's law' will allow court-ordered treatment of mentally ill. Governor also approves law allowing Segway scooters on sidewalks.

September 29, 2002|DAN MORAIN and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation Saturday permitting authorities to treat severely mentally ill people against their will if judges conclude that they cannot care for themselves and are likely to become dangerous.

The legislation represents a significant amendment to a state law that protects the civil rights of mentally ill people, the 30-year-old Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. The act helped lead to the emptying of state hospitals, which once housed more than 30,000 people but now care for 4,000. All but about 800 of those remaining patients have committed crimes and were sent to institutions by courts.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 1421, establishes a hearing process in which judges will determine whether the person has a history of failing to comply with treatment and has, within four years, exhibited "serious violent" behavior against others, or tried to hurt himself or herself. The individual could be represented by a public defender or a private lawyer.

Davis said he expects the measure to help reduce homelessness, hospitalization and involvement in the criminal justice system.

"This is a critical step in helping the seriously mentally ill, as well as their families," Davis said in a statement, predicting that the bill would "help end the cycle of hospitalization, quitting treatment and relapse."

Davis' decision to sign the bill marked a victory for Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis) in her final year in the lower house. Thomson tried for five years to win approval of the measure, which was backed by law enforcement and many family members of the mentally ill. Liberals in the Legislature, siding with some patients' rights activists, had blocked its passage until this year.

Thomson called the final version of the bill "Laura's law," named for Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old woman who worked at a Nevada County mental health facility and was killed by a man whose mental illness had gone untreated. It is similar to a New York law adopted in 1999 after a mentally ill man pushed 32-year-old Kendra Webdale into the path of a subway train.

As part of the compromise, counties will have the option of participating, and would bear the costs. People would be treated in expanded outpatient programs considered the "least restrictive" necessary to achieve recovery.

Under current law, people generally can be detained for 72 hours. In extreme cases, they can be held for six months. The law provides parents and other family members of adults who are mentally ill little or no opportunity to intervene on the individual's behalf. Thomson's bill will allow family members to testify at hearings.

"I don't think it will have any impact on the population in state hospitals," said Stephen W. Mayberg, director of the state Department of Mental Health. "Our goal is to treat people not in institutional settings."

In other action Saturday, Davis vetoed seven bills, saying they would cost local government tens of millions of dollars. The bills generally sought to limit local officials' power to tailor benefits for workers.

"Under different economic circumstances," Davis said in a veto message, "I would be supportive of many of these bills, as they provide deserved benefits to workers who provide critical services to California's citizens. However, local government budgets are already under severe strain, which would be exacerbated if these bills become law at this time."

Davis signed legislation sponsored by the Segway Co. of Manchester, N.H., to permit the company's futuristic, battery-powered scooter to be operated on California sidewalks and in pedestrian malls.

The so-called "human transporter" is a self-balancing, two-wheeled device designed to zip people at speeds as high as 20 mph. The company intends to charge about $8,500 for the scooters and advertises them as an environmentally friendly alternative to walking.

To operate its vehicles legally on sidewalks, Segway needed a change in the law that would classify them as "pedestrian," a characterization assailed by advocates for the blind. Otherwise, the machines would have been listed as motor vehicles and be barred from sidewalks. There is no age minimum for operating the machines.

Starting March 1, the bill will give local governments the authority to determine where and when the scooters can be operated. It also will allow local entities to outlaw them.

One of Segway's main venture capitalists was Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers. A partner in the firm, John Doerr III, is one of Davis' major donors, having given him $160,000 since 1999, including $25,000 in June.

Segway's nationwide lobbying campaign has succeeded in gaining approval to use the vehicles on sidewalks in 29 states, despite concerns that they could crash into blind people and result in liability suits against local government.

The bill, SB 1918 by Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), easily cleared both houses of the Legislature.

Davis signed other bills:

PRESERVE--Farmers, local government and conservation groups can receive $4.8 million in loans and grants to preserve farm, grazing and oak lands from development. The bill called for spending $9.6 million from Proposition 40 conservation funds approved by the voters in March, but Davis cut the sum in half. AB 52 by Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa).

FRAUD--Companies must publicly disclose twice a year loans to their directors at preferential rates, yearly pay for directors and top executives, and the names of independent auditors. The measure is intended to curb corporate fraud. AB 55 by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco).

PRIESTS--Clergy and certain other church employees must report to authorities known or suspected cases of child sexual abuse, except if the information has been acquired in a confessional. AB 299 by Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside).

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