What is Section 35?
Alcohol and substance abuse can become serious issues and impair people from managing their lives, possibly harming their well-being. If someone’s alcohol or substance use escalates so that it endangers anyone, Section 35 of the Massachusetts mental health law can be used to force the person to get help.
Section 35 enables a court to involuntarily commit a person to a treatment facility for up to 90 days if his or her alcohol or substance use endangers themselves or others. Such a long period of commitment can seriously interrupt a person’s professional and personal life; if a court starts a Section 35 process, the people involved need to know their legal rights and the consequences of the commitment.
Committing someone under Section 35 requires a specific legal process. To begin the process, a relative, spouse, physician, police officer, guardian, or court official would file legal papers that ask a court to commit the person with substance abuse issues. The state does not need to file criminal charges. The court would then formally summon the substance abuser to a hearing, and the person may be arrested if he or she fails to attend. The abuser may also be arrested if the court believes he or she is an immediate danger to anyone.
At the hearing, the judge will decide whether the person is a substance abuser or an alcoholic according to Section 35’s definitions. Section 35 states that an alcoholic is someone who cannot control how much he drinks, or someone who drinks enough alcohol to harm his health, social life, or financial well-being. A substance abuser is someone who meets the same criteria as a result of controlled substances. A physician or psychiatrist will decide whether the person meets the definition, and the judge can only commit someone if the doctor concludes the person is a substance abuser or an alcoholic. Next, the judge examines evidence and decides whether the person’s alcohol or substance abuse endangers anyone. Threatening others with violence while intoxicated is one example that the person’s abuse issues endanger others. If the judge finds that the person’s alcohol or substance abuse will likely harm someone, the judge may commit the person to an inpatient treatment facility, such as Bridgewater State Hospital, for up to 90 days.
The alleged abuser has important rights throughout this process. First, he has the right to have an attorney represent him. An experienced attorney would be familiar with what kind of evidence shows a person is a substance abuser or an alcoholic according to Section 35, and would know how to question witnesses and communicate your case to the judge effectively. Further, the alleged substance abuser can hire experts to testify that he or she does not have substance problems.
If the judge commits the person, he or she could be released before spending 90 days in treatment if the treatment staff decides the person is no longer dangerous. The severity of the person’s addiction and her overall health can also affect the length of her commitment.