Stiavetti v. Ahlin (State Hospital Suit)

Active Case
Dec 12, 2022
In 2015, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a lawsuit against the state of California—specifically, California’s Department of State Hospitals (DSH) and Department of Developmental Services (DDS)—for the prolonged detention of people in county jails who are declared incompetent to stand trial (IST) due to psychiatric or intellectual disability. The lawsuit demanded that the state reduce the lengthy delays that these individuals face in being transferred from county jails to treatment.

At the time of filing, hundreds of people were languishing in county jails for extended periods of time, waiting to be transferred to treatment. In 2015, the average length of time an IST defendant spent waiting for transfer was 75 days. Nearly seven years later, the situation remains dire—if not worse. According to DSH data from June 2022, over 1700 people declared IST were awaiting transfer to a state hospital or other medical facility. The average wait time for transfer is now 141 days—nearly double the wait time when the case was filed.

California courts have affirmed that California violates the constitutional rights of individuals by leaving them in jail without access to treatment, and with their criminal proceedings stalled. In 2019, the trial court ruled in favor of the Stiavetti plaintiffs and ordered DSH to “commence substantive services” for people declared IST “within 28 days.” In June 2021, the California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s order, finding that DSH had “systematically failed to provide due process” to IST defendants and recognizing the “undisputed harms these defendants suffer due to prolonged incarceration in county jails.” A month later, the California Supreme Court denied the State’s request for review of the Court of Appeal ruling. This means the trial court’s ruling is final and binding. The case is now in the enforcement phase.

The state has sought to delay the implementation of the court’s deadlines for compliance with the trial court ruling. In August 2021, at the state’s request, the superior court extended the implementation period for DSH and DDS. The court ordered the state to ensure that, by February 27, 2024, all IST defendants access treatment within 28 days. It also established interim deadlines: by August 27, 2021, all IST defendants must access substantive treatment within 60 days; by February 27, 2023, all IST defendants must access treatment within 45 days; and by August 27, 2023, all IST defendants must access treatment within 33 days. DSH is far out of compliance with these extended deadlines.

Following the trial court’s time extension, DSH asked the court to lift all of the interim deadlines, claiming in a June 2022 motion that the COVID-19 pandemic had frustrated its efforts to get people timely care and it should not be bound by the court’s order until 2024.

ACLU NorCal continues to challenge the state’s efforts to delay or thwart its obligations to this vulnerable population and emphasizes that the state will not be able to address the lack of treatment opportunities by simply adding more beds to jails and state hospitals: it must focus on alternatives to incarceration such as expanding mental health diversion and community-based treatment.

Learn more

'You can't get out': Mentally ill languish in California jails without trial or treatment (Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2022)

California Supreme Court Rules that the State Must Address the Prolonged Detention in County Jails of Defendants Deemed Incompetent to Stand Trial (Press Release, August 25, 2021)

California Court Rejects the State's Prolonged Detention of People with Psychiatric and Intellectual Disabilities in County Jails (Press Release, June 16, 2021)

Court Rules State Violating Due Process Rights of Defendants with Psychiatric and Intellectual Disabilities (Press Release, March 26, 2019)

ACLU Sues State Hospital System for Failing Criminal Defendants with Psychiatric & Intellectual Disabilities (Press Release, July 29, 2015)

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Case Developments


Respondents' Petition for Coordination

State's petition seeking to combine this case with court orders from 77 counties, where IST defendants challenged their prolonged detention in jail

Respondents' Brief in Support of Motion for Modification

State's motion seeking to be relieved of all interim deadlines for compliance with final court order

Trial Court Amended Judgment

Revising deadlines for compliance with final court order

California Court of Appeal Ruling

Affirms Superior Court order, concluding that the state has "systematically violated the due process rights of all IST defendants in California"

Final Judgment of Superior Court

Setting a timeline to phase in the requirement that the state provide treatment to IST defendants within 28 days

Order Granting In Part Petition for Writ of Mandate

Finding that the state "must commence substantive services to restore an IST defendant to competency within 28 days" in order to uphold defendants' right to due process