Disability Rights Group Challenges California Law That Forces the Mentally Ill Into Court-Ordered Treatment

"On its face, the CARE Act violates essential constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection while needlessly burdening fundamental rights to privacy, autonomy and liberty," the petition states.


A California disability rights group is asking the state's Supreme Court to block the enforcement of the CARE Act, a sweeping piece of legislation signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall. The law, which aims to tackle the state's homelessness crisis, creates "CARE Courts," which enable the state to force severely mentally ill people into court-ordered treatment and housing programs. However, disability rights groups have consistently opposed the measure, arguing that it risks being abused to trap mentally ill people under state control.

"The CARE Act was an attempt to respond to two crises—a shortage of affordable, accessible housing and mental health care—that force many into last-resort living situations," the petition argues. "Singling out people with schizophrenia and forcing them into involuntary outpatient treatment, multiple court hearings, compelled assessments and other statutory penalties is not an appropriate response."

The CARE Act was signed last September, with Gov. Newsom claiming that the new law would "[offer] hope and a new path forward for thousands of struggling Californians and empowering their loved ones to help." Under the law, individuals like first responders, family members, and clinicians can petition to have a severely mentally ill person participate in the "CARE program."

If the individual meets certain requirements, like having a severe psychotic illness that is currently untreated, the case can move forward in two ways. First, if the individual voluntarily accepts treatment, the case is dismissed. If the individual refuses, they are appointed an attorney, and a series of hearings occurs. A judge can ultimately order the individual into a "CARE plan," mandating mental health treatment. This plan is automatically put in place for one year, with a possible voluntary one-year extension.

Supporters argue that the CARE Act will allow the state to tackle its homelessness crisis by helping severely mentally ill homeless people get off the streets and into treatment. However, disability rights groups and civil liberties organizations argue that CARE plans are rife with the potential for abuse.

"Unfortunately, instead of focusing on proven methods that prioritize permanent housing and voluntary healthcare, Governor Gavin Newsom's so-called 'CARE Court' plan would create a new court system that subjects unhoused people with mental health disabilities to involuntary treatment. This is not the answer," wrote the California American Civil Liberties Union in June of last year.

Now, Disability Rights California has taken legal action, asking the California Supreme Court to block enforcement of the law. The petition, which was filed late last month argues that the CARE Act violates due process rights by coercing individuals into restrictive court-mandated treatment plans using "vague" and "undefined" language which the petition claims could lead to "arbitrary and discriminatory decision-making."

Further, the petition argues that the CARE Act violates equal protection rights by singling out those with a psychotic illness like schizophrenia for court proceedings. "No other California mental health statute distinguishes between individuals based on diagnosis, rather than severity of need," the petition states.

Overall, the petition argues that CARE Act will lead to gross violations of many basic rights guaranteed under the California Constitution. "Thousands of unhoused Californians with mental illness will be threatened with court orders, forced into involuntary treatment and swept off the streets, not because they are a danger to themselves or others, but because a judge has speculated they are 'likely' to become so in the future," the petition states. "Although designed to address the State's homelessness crisis, it will not further that goal. And on its face, the CARE Act violates essential constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection while needlessly burdening fundamental rights to privacy, autonomy and liberty."

While it is unclear whether the California Supreme Court will take up this challenge to the CARE Act, this latest action makes a clear argument against using the power of the state to coerce individuals into medical treatment.

"The CARE Act sets up a compulsory new court system authorizing the deprivation of liberty and autonomy in conflict with Californians' basic constitutional rights," Mike Rawson, the director of litigation at the Public Interest Law Project, said in a January press release. "Such coercive systems and treatments have been proven ineffective and will only serve to perpetuate institutional racism and worsen health disparities."