Disability Law Sues the State of Colorado

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The court orders mental health treatment for inmates who cannot participate in the criminal proceedings against them. The wait times to receive mental health treatment were weeks, even months.

Disability Law Colorado sued the State of Colorado alleging that the excessive delays violated the US Constitution. 

The Circumstances

A Weld County man was arrested on January 16, 2011. At his February 17 hearing, he was deemed incompetent to stand trial and ordered by the court to receive mental health treatment from the state hospital to allow him to participate in his case. However, he remained confined in the Weld County Jail for six months until the Colorado Mental Health Institute made a bed available for him this summer.

This case is one of a growing number where presumptively innocent men and women with serious mental illnesses languish in Colorado jails for months awaiting court-ordered mental health evaluations and mental health treatment so that they can participate in their criminal proceedings.

The Lawsuit

On August 31, Disability Law Colorado filed a federal lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Human Services and the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP) alleging that the excessive delays violate the United States Constitution.

In some cases, pretrial detainees wait in jail for mental health evaluations and treatment longer than they would have otherwise been confined for their alleged offense. The lawsuit was supported by signed affidavits from Arapahoe County Sheriff J. Grayson Robinson and the Colorado State Public Defender, Douglas K. Wilson.

In his affidavit, Sheriff Robinson stated that it costs the county almost twice as much to house people with mental illness as it does other detainees, and that they place special demands on the staff to ensure their safety. Robinson notes that his jail does not have the medical professionals needed to evaluate, treat, and care for these individuals properly. As jail staff cannot provide psychiatric medications to detainees with mental illness involuntarily, their psychological condition often deteriorates rapidly and with it their behavior.

It is not uncommon for mentally ill detainees to commit crimes or violate facility conduct rules because of their inability to conform their behavior to the requirements of a secure detention facility.”

- Sheriff J. Grayson Robinson, Arapahoe County

The Legal Team

Disability Law Colorado’s legal team was led by Iris Eytan, Jason Lynch, Caleb Durling, and Marcus Lock. Eytan and Lynch are partners, and Durling is an associate at the Denver litigation firm of Reilly Pozner LLP. Lock, a former associate at Reilly Pozner, is now a partner at the Gunnison law firm of Bratton Hill Wilderson & Lock LLC.

Disability Law Colorado attorneys working on the case were Mark Ivandick and Randy Chapman.

Zuniga Agreement

Eytan and Lock prosecuted contempt actions against the state for the same problems in 2006, and ultimately negotiated a comprehensive settlement agreement, under which the State of Colorado was required to admit detainees for competency evaluations and treatment to restore to competency in under 30 days.

However, the “Zuniga” Agreement, as it was known, expired when the state opened a new 200-bed psychiatric facility in 2009, which officials claimed would fix the problem. It did not, and since the expiration of the Zuniga Agreement, Eytan and Lock have watched the time detainees with mental illness are languishing in jail for admission to CMHIP steadily increase.

The state’s actions and inactions are ongoing, pervasive, systemic violations of the 14th Amendment and cause undue suffering for some of the most disenfranchised people in Colorado,”

- Iris Eytan

The people we are trying to help are caught in a procedural limbo; they need, and are constitutionally entitled, to treatment. But instead of receiving mental health care at CMHIP, they are unjustifiably confined in jail for months on end.”

- Marcus Lock

The jails are not equipped to hold pretrial detainees who suffer from mental illness. They cannot provide the treatment those detainees need, and the excessive delays in evaluating mentally ill detainees and admitting them into the state hospital can cause persons with mental illness to deteriorate, further lengthening the time it takes to restore them to competency.”

- Jason Lynch

Lawsuit Request

Disability Law Colorado’s suit asked the federal court to require the State of Colorado to provide evaluation or treatment to mentally-ill detainees within seven days of a court order.

We are very grateful for the support of some of the nation’s most experienced lawyers on this case: Reilly Pozner is a full-service litigation firm handling high profile cases in more than 40 states. Bratton Hill Wilderson & Lock is one of the leading law firms in Western Colorado and handles transactional, litigation, and water matters across the state. Both firms believe they have a responsibility to provide pro bono legal services to those in need and devote substantial resources to individual and major broad-based legal cases.

Disability Law Colorado believes that the human suffering and financial toll caused by chronic delays in evaluating mentally ill criminal defendants and those found incompetent to stand trial are unconscionable and unjustifiable.

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