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Who Cares for the Mentally Ill?

On March 26, 2012, David Kyle Miller was arrested by Fort Bragg police officers for “refusing or failing to leave land, real property, or structure of another, not open to the public.” In plain words, he was trespassing.

Miller was transported to the Mendocino County Jail, where official booking took place on March 28, 2012. Readers should know that even though it's likely Miller was transported on the day of his arrest, March 26th, it is not unusual for prisoners to languish in cells for two to three days or more before they are officially booked. This can include persons who are eligible to be bailed out more or less immediately after booking. Mendocino County is far from unique in this practice.

By March 29, 2012 Miller was released from the county jail. On the final night of March, a wet, cold, windy evening, David Miller walked onto the roadway in Willits and was struck by a passing motorist, causing severe injury to Mr. Miller's brain.

Miller remained in critical condition for a year and a half. Meanwhile, his family retained Phillip Snell of the Ragghianti Freitas law firm out of Marin County. Initial claims against the county and the City of Fort Bragg were rejected. This is standard procedure these days.

The initial claim against the County of Mendocino stated, "The Sheriff of Mendocino through his employees failed to exercise discretion to determine whether David Miller, who was in their custody, was mentally ill, and failed to summon medical care for Mr. Miller when they knew or should have known that he was irrational and in need of immediate medical care, and released Mr. Miller from jail knowing he was irrational and in need of medical care. As a result, Mr. Miller, while a pedestrian, was struck by an automobile in Willits on March 31, 2012, causing brain injury."

Miller's case had to jump through an additional hoop when in August of 2013, Snell was forced to file a petition for relief against the government code requiring unlimited civil suits be filed within six months. Either Snell erroneously misunderstood the employment status of the nurse who saw David Miller in the Mendocino County Jail as being employed by a private corporation, California Forensic Medical Group, or the Sheriff's Dept. and/or the County misled him, deliberately or otherwise. In an August, 2012 hearing Judge Mayfield upheld Snell's pleadings and ordered the case to go forward.

Anyone who has read the book A Civil Action or seen the movie of the same name will understand the slow forward to the next step of the case in a courtroom. On Friday, April 18, 2014, Judge Mayfield was gone and Judge Richard Henderson presided in Courtroom E in Ukiah. Mr. Snell stood in court that morning responding to the demurrer of one of Mendocino County's youngest deputy counsels, Brina Latkin. A demurrer is essentially an objection claiming that even if the facts are as alleged by the opposite party, they do not sustain the contention based on them. In other words, even if Mr. Miller was released from Mendocino County Jail, and even if he was irrational and mentally ill, and even if he was run over a couple of days later while still in this unstable condition, what business is it of ours?

That is the question. In a county that seems content to hand off its mental health care system to private corporations, and in a county where the primary mental health facility is the county jail, who then is rersponsible, literally and financially? Mendocino County's argument in the case of David Miller boils down to this: If the court orders Mr. Miller released, which it did, then the county jail bears no responsibility for what happens to someone like Mr. Miller after his release. This is the argument, despite Mendocino County and its jail having a written policy that requires follow up care for the mentally ill.

David Kyle Miller's case bears a striking resemblance to what happened to Jeremy Lum in July of 2009. Mr. Lum, who was bipolar, was found passed out on a lawn not far from his family's home. He was transported to the San Joaquin County Jail. He was released early in the morning, barefoot, to walk himself home or wherever. Two days later he was found drowned in the San Joaquin River. The Lum family filed suit against San Joaquin County.

The Miller case grew even more similar to Lum's last fall when David Miller died from his injuries. His family is pushing on with the case against Mendocino County. The next step: Judge Henderson will likely sustain Mendocino County's demurrer, but also allow attorney Snell to further question the County's legal position.

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