O'Connor v. Donaldson
|O'Connor v. Kenneth Donaldson|
Supreme Court of the United States
|Argued January 15, 1975
Decided June 26, 1975
|Full case name||Dr. J. B. O'Connor v. Kenneth Donaldson|
|Citations||422 U.S. 563 (more)|
|Prior history||Cert. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit|
|A State cannot constitutionally confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.|
|Majority||Stewart, joined by unanimous|
O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975), was a landmark decision in mental health law. The United States Supreme Court ruled that a state cannot constitutionally confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends, and since the previous jury found, upon ample evidence, that petitioner did so confine respondent, it properly concluded that petitioner had violated respondent's right to liberty.
Kenneth Donaldson (confined patient) had been held for 15 years in Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, due to needs of "care, maintenance, and treatment". He filed a lawsuit against the hospital and staff members claiming they had robbed him of his constitutional rights, by confining him against his will. Donaldson won his case (including monetary damages) in United States District Court, won the appeals, and in 1975 the victory was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court.
A finding of "mental illness" alone cannot justify a State's locking a person up against their will and keeping them indefinitely in simple custodial confinement. Assuming that that term can be given a reasonably precise content and that the "mentally ill" can be identified with reasonable accuracy, there is still no constitutional basis for confining such persons involuntarily if they are dangerous to no one and can live safely in freedom.
May the State confine the mentally ill merely to ensure them a living standard superior to that they enjoy in the private community? That the State has a proper interest in providing care and assistance to the unfortunate goes without saying. But the mere presence of mental illness does not disqualify a person from preferring his home to the comforts of an institution. Moreover, while the State may arguably confine a person to save him from harm, incarceration is rarely if ever a necessary condition for raising the living standards of those capable of surviving safely in freedom, on their own or with the help of family or friends. May the State fence in the harmless mentally ill solely to save its citizens from exposure to those whose ways are different? One might as well ask if the State, to avoid public unease, could incarcerate all who are physically unattractive or socially eccentric. Mere public intolerance or animosity cannot constitutionally justify the deprivation of a person's physical liberty. In short, a State cannot constitutionally confine without more a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends. ...
Kenneth Donaldson 
The origins of Donaldson's institutionalization began in 1943, at age 43, when he suffered a traumatic episode. He was hospitalized and received treatment, before resuming life with his family.
In 1956 Donaldson travelled to Florida to visit his elderly parents. While there, Donaldson reported that he believed one of his neighbours in Philadelphia might be poisoning his food. His father, worried that his son suffered from paranoid delusions, petitioned the court for a sanity hearing. Donaldson was evaluated, diagnosed with "paranoid schizophrenia," and civilly committed to the Florida State mental health system. At his commitment trial, Donaldson did not have legal counsel present to represent his case. Once he entered the Florida hospital, Donaldson was placed with dangerous criminals, even though he had never been proved to be dangerous to himself or others. His ward was understaffed, with only one doctor (who happened to be an obstetrician) for over 1,000 male patients. There were no psychiatrists or counsellors, and the only nurse on site worked in the infirmary.
He spent 15 years as a patient; he did not receive any treatment, actively refusing it, and attempting to secure his release. Throughout his stay he denied he was ever mentally ill, and refused to be put into a halfway house.
See also 
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 422
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (film), 1975 Award winning-film
- FindLaw | Cases and Codes
- "O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975)". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- "Legal standard/requirements for assisted treatment, by state". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- O'Connor v. Donaldson - Further Readings