Judge Grapples With How To Handle Defendant With Intellectual Disability
PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal judge didn’t equivocate this week, declaring Lawrence Collins, a 40-year-old accused of federal tax fraud, unable to assist in his own defense because of his intellectual disability.
The next questions proved more difficult: What does the court do with Collins now?
Should he be committed to the federal Bureau of Prisons? Or should he be allowed to remain in the community to continue to receive local treatment, counseling and other support services?
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The case is rare because of a combination of factors: Collins faces charges in a nonviolent crime. He’s already been out of custody for more than two years on pretrial supervision. And, perhaps most unusual, Collins suffers from a cognitive disability that may not be treatable.
His case, as well as one involving a defendant in Arizona who has gone to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge his commitment, highlight how the federal system deals with people who have intellectual disabilities.
What the courts decide in these cases could have implications for others with similar disabilities.
Collins can’t read or exercise independent decisions, an evaluator found. In the Arizona case, the defendant was found to have a very low IQ and unable to assist in his own defense.
At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez in Portland, prosecutor Quinn Harrington argued that federal law governing a defendant’s competency is unambiguous and urged adherence to its strict language: Commit Collins to the custody of the attorney general.
He said the Bureau of Prisons would determine the most suitable facility for Collins’ care in a quick, efficient way. The law doesn’t require a “suitable facility” to be one close to the defendant’s home or his preferred location, the prosecutor said.
Removing Collins from the community with the hope of restoring his competency by locking him up in an out-of-state prison would not only harm him but discriminates against him and violates his constitutional rights, said Collins’ lawyer Amy Baggio and Emily Cooper, a lawyer for Disability Rights Oregon.
Baggio said Collins would be destined for one of seven maximum-security federal medical centers, located more than a thousand miles away either in North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, Kentucky, Missouri or Forth Worth or Carswell, Texas.
“We are concerned about the liberty interests of Mr. Collins and others like him,” Cooper said.
Collins instead should be placed in the least restrictive setting available to adhere to two other federal laws, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Baggio and Cooper said.
Federal prison guidelines fail to consider less restrictive options for a defendant who isn’t violent and isn’t competent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability, they said.
As a result, the prison guidelines conflict with the federal competency law, which directs the attorney general to hospitalize the defendant for treatment in a “suitable facility,” Baggio said.
“The government has made wholly insufficient efforts to assess the suitability of this placement ‘to provide care or treatment given the nature of the offense and the characteristics of the defendant,'” Baggio wrote in court papers.
Collins was charged in 2016, accused of conspiring with two different girlfriends to file false tax returns in the names of third parties and get fraudulent tax refunds. He used the refund money to go on a Royal Caribbean cruise and on trips to Las Vegas, Florida and Texas, the government alleges.
He was arrested Sept. 21, 2016, but released to pretrial supervision on Nov. 1, 2016.
After hearing testimony from psychologists who evaluated him, the judge found Collins unable to assist in his defense because of his disability. Collins currently lives with a relative and a girlfriend.
An Oregon State Hospital doctor who evaluated Collins in April reported that Collins wasn’t competent and probably would never become competent. The doctor also found that Collins wasn’t a danger to himself or others and wasn’t a good candidate for hospitalization.
Another evaluator testified that a local, community-based program would be better suited for Collins, noting that others with low intellectual functioning often are “exploited and victimized” in custody, according to court records.
The judge this week voiced some concerns about Collins’ placement.
The federal competency law “may be at odds” with the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally-run programs, Hernandez said.
The judge ordered the Bureau of Prisons to come up with a placement for Collins that meets his needs, noting it may contract with a private agency for care or services. The bureau must report back to him in 45 days on where it will send Collins and why. If Collins’ lawyers object, they can challenge the placement before Collins goes anywhere, the judge said.
Collins had faced unrelated charges in Multnomah County court of driving under the influence and reckless driving. He was declared incompetent to stand trial and allowed to obtain community-based treatment from Multnomah County. The charges were dismissed.
The institutionalization of Oregonians with intellectual disabilities has dropped from 22,000 people in 1977 to 47 in 2016, Cooper wrote in a friend of the court brief.
Federal and state policies have moved to transfer them to community-based treatment. More than 40 years ago, Oregon emerged as a leader, Cooper said, now one of only four states to have completely closed its care facilities for people with intellectual disabilities.
Oral arguments in the Arizona case will be heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 20. The Arizona defendant, Martin Nino, was found incompetent to stand trial due to his very low IQ after he’d been on pretrial release for more than a year, accused of making a false statement in connection with the purchase of a gun. A federal judge’s order that the Arizona defendant be committed to the federal prisons bureau was placed on hold in December 2017, pending the outcome of the appeal.
“The idea that he is now a threat to society simply because he has been diagnosed with a low IQ and intellectual disability is unfounded and offensive,” Nino’s defense lawyer Michael Areinoff wrote in court papers.
© 2018 The Oregonian
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