North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
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April 19, 1978


Mental Health; Police Officers; Involuntary Commitment; Process for Return of Escaped Patient

Requested By:

Mr. T. H. Hamm Chief Deputy Office of the Sheriff Mecklenburg County


Upon notification that an involuntarily committed patient has escaped from a mental health facility, what type of process is needed by the sheriff in order to apprehend the patient and return him to the facility?


Written request for apprehension and return of the patient signed by the Chief of Medical Services of the mental health facility from which the patient escaped, preferably accompanied by a copy of the commitment order, is sufficient to authorize apprehension and return of the patient.

The General Statutes are silent on the exact nature of documentation required to effect an apprehension and return of an escaped mental patient. However, in a similar situation involving a patient who has been conditionally released from a mental health facility but who later violates the conditions of his release, G.S. 122-58.13 provides:

". . . Violation of the conditions is grounds for return to the releasing facility. A law enforcement officer on written request of the Chief of Medical Services of the facility, shall take a conditional releasee into custody and return him to the facility . . ."

It should be recognized that the order of commitment issued by a court of competent jurisdiction -- either at the initial hearing (G.S. 122-58.8) or upon rehearing (G.S. 122-58.11) -- sets the term for the commitment of the patient and affords the basic authority for assuming custody of him. The situation of the escapee is strikingly analogous to that of the conditional releasee for which statutory provision has been made. Thus, written request for the apprehension and return of the escapee executed by the appropriate chief of medical services should be adequate to furnish the basis for apprehension and return. For protection of the law enforcement officer it is strongly suggested that a copy of the commitment order (initial or rehearing) be furnished for his consideration and his records. On this score, it might be noted that any apparent discrepancy between the written request and the commitment order should be brought to the attention of the requestor and should be clarified before action is taken. In view of the fact that an involuntarily committed patient has been found to be dangerous as a prerequisite to the finding of need for involuntary commitment, any clarification needed preliminary to effecting custody should be obtained in the most expenditious manner possible.

One further observation is in order relative to the degree of force which may be utilized in effecting custody. This Office has previously addressed the subject of permissible force in situations involving the initial taking of a patient into custody preliminary to his involuntary commitment. See 46 N.C.A.G. 164 (1977). The same principles set forth in that opinion should apply to this situation.

Rufus L. Edmisten Attorney General

William F. O'Connell Special Deputy Attorney General