Thanks to Law and Order, we’re all familiar with the beginning of a person’s Miranda Warning: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” What many may not know, however, is that this is a right only afforded to those involved in criminal proceedings. In civil cases, there is no constitutional right to refuse to testify. Historically, this has been intended to ensure that our criminal justice system—which can deprive a person of their freedom, property, and even their life—remains accusatorial, not inquisitorial. A civil matter, on the other hand, is meant to resolve disputes between individuals and does not threaten the same consequences, so public policy favors bringing forth the information that a person’s testimony offers , even if it is against his or her self-interest.
A recent case, however, raised the somewhat murkier question of what standard should apply in conservatorship proceedings. Under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (the “LPS Act”), if a person is found to be gravely disabled as the result of a mental disorder and unable to provide for his or her own food, clothing, and shelter, he or she may be committed to an involuntary conservatorship. In this situation, a conservator makes all decisions regarding the person’s living situation, finances, and medical care, and in some cases the conservatee may be confined to an institutional care setting. In the Conservatorship of the Person and Estate of Bryan S. [Citation] (Conservatorship of Bryan S.), the proposed conservatee, Bryan, argued that he should not have been forced to testify at his conservatorship trial. Bryan claimed that he was similarly situated to those found not guilty by reason of insanity and those subject to sexually violent predator and mentally disordered offender proceedings, all three of which classes have been found to have the right not to testify. Under the equal protection clause of the Constitution, Bryan argued, he should be entitled to the same rights.
While the history and nuance of the equal protection clause is extremely complex, at its most basic, it is meant to ensure that the state applies its laws equally to all. The threshold question of whether equal protection principles apply is whether the state has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner. In regards to potential conservatees under the LPS Act, the California Court of Appeals clarified in the Conservatorship of Bryan S. that such individuals are not similarly situated to individuals facing commitment as a result of criminal acts related to a mental health condition. Therefore, LPS Act conservatees are not similarly situated and not entitled to refuse to testify at their conservatorship trials.
As the court explained, the LPS Act was designed to provide prompt evaluation and treatment for individuals with mental health disorders and to provide them with individualized treatment, supervision, and placement options, including being placed in non-institutional settings with family or friends, if appropriate. The LPS Act is meant to protect public safety, but also to protect people with mental health disorders from criminal acts.
While Conservatorship of Bryan S. clarifies that a LPS Act conservatee cannot refuse to testify at his or her trial, it also confirms that, consistent with prior case law, a prospective conservatee will not be compelled to answer questions that may incriminate him or her in a criminal matter. So while the right to remain silent does not apply in all settings, it is absolute in its protection against self-incrimination, at least for criminal acts.