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Court rules patient-therapist talks may not be used for committal

California Supreme Court says trial judge erred in ordering therapist to disclose a sex offender's statements. The parolee was committed to a state mental hospital.

March 19, 2013|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO — A patient's private communications with his psychotherapist generally may not be used as evidence to commit him to a mental institution as a sexually violent predator, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the state high court said a trial judge erred by ordering a therapist to disclose statements made by a parolee during state-required therapy. The therapist testified at a trial that determined that Ramiro Gonzales, 58, a Santa Clara County sex offender, was a violent predator who should be indefinitely confined to a state mental hospital.

Although Monday's ruling did not overturn Gonzales' confinement, the decision strengthened protections for the patient-psychotherapist relationship, Gonzales' lawyer said.

"If you are talking to a therapist and genuinely trying to get to work on something, there has to be a certain freedom to communicate in a way that is meaningful," said Jean Matulis, Gonzales' lawyer.

Gonzales, who had committed sex offenses involving children, was ordered as a condition of parole to attend therapy. After violating terms of his parole, the state sought to confine him as a predator. A judge ordered the therapist to testify over Gonzales' objections. The therapist disclosed that Gonzales had admitted molesting 16 children and that alcohol made it difficult for him to control his urges.

The California Supreme Court said the psychotherapist's testimony was improper, but the jury probably would have decided Gonzales was a predator even without it. The court noted that two mental health experts hired by the state had concluded that Gonzales was a pedophile who was likely to reoffend.

The judge overseeing the commitment proceeding had permitted the therapist's testimony under an exception in the law that permits disclosure to prevent danger to a patient or others.

But the Supreme Court said there was no evidence that the therapist believed disclosure was necessary to prevent Gonzales from harming a child.

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