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People ex rel. Peabody v. Chanler

Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division

June 4, 1909


Appeal from Special Term, Westchester County.

Proceedings by writ of habeas corpus by the People of the state of New York, on the relation of A. Russell Peabody, against Robert W. Chanler, sheriff of the county of Dutchess, and another. From an order dismissing the writ, the relator appeals. Affirmed.

See 116 N.Y.Supp. 62.

[117 N.Y.S. 323] Franklin Bartlett, for relator.

Asa Bird Gardiner and Robert C. Taylor, for respondents.

Argued before HIRSCHBERG, P. J., and JENKS, GAYNOR, RICH, and MILLER, JJ.


The point raised is that the statute whereby Thaw was committed is unconstitutional, in that it does not provide for notice and a hearing. Thaw was committed pursuant to a provision contained in that part of the Code of Criminal Procedure which relates to the trial and the verdict. Chapter 3, tit. 7. This provision (section 454) reads:

" When the defense is insanity of the defendant the jury must be instructed, if they acquit him on that ground, to state the fact with their verdict. The court must, thereupon, if the defendant be in custody, and they deem his discharge dangerous to the public peace or safety, order him to be committed to the State Lunatic Asylum, until he becomes sane."
" The practical effect" is that the Legislature has prescribed that a successful defense of insanity shall not as a matter of course be followed by the absolute discharge of the defendant ( Gleason v. Inhabitants, 136 Mass. 489, 490), but it may be followed by his commitment until he becomes sane. As such commitment is not a matter of course, but may be made only by that court and only of a defendant in detention whom the court deems dangerous to the public peace and safety if discharged, and the commitment lasts only until the defendant becomes sane, we must infer that the Legislature intended that the court would commit only after its conclusion that at the time of acquittal the defendant was insane so as to be a menace to the public peace and safety. But, as there is no provision for enlightenment of the court in any other manner, it must be that the Legislature intended that the court could rest its conclusion upon the evidence given at the trial and the appearance of the defendant thereat. If the defendant's plea was insanity and it had prevailed, it would follow that insanity was litigated at the trial. Although the inquiry at the trial would be directed to insanity at the time of the commission of the offense, yet the evidence might establish that such insanity had not ceased, but had continued, that it was chronic, that the defendant might then or thereafter [117 N.Y.S. 324] in the very nature of his disease be subject to recurrences of a state of mind like unto that in him when he committed the alleged crime. And, moreover, such evidence might well bear directly upon the condition of the defendant at the time of trial. For Gray, J., speaking for the court in People v. Hoch, 150 N.Y. 291, 44 N.E. 976, says:
" Of course, the issue turns upon the prisoner's mental condition at the time of the homicide-whether he was laboring under such a defect of reason as to render him incapable of knowing the nature and quality of the homicidal act, or was incapable of knowing that it was wrong. But there is no apparent reason, and I am aware of no authority, for holding that, in addition to all the other facts, the jury may not be informed by one competent to speak as to the mental condition of the defendant at the time of his trial. He stands before them accused of the crime with the plea of insanity to shelter him from a conviction at their hands, and in their consideration of his plea for exoneration no competent evidence bearing upon his mental condition at the time of the homicide or since should be excluded, and the evidence objected to certainly cannot be said to be prejudicial to any substantial rights of the accused, or to contravene the demands of justice."

Thus the Legislature might well have contemplated that the court might reach its conclusion, enlightened as the court was said to be in People v. McElvaine, 125 N.Y. at 608, 26 N.E. 933:

" It had previously tried the defendant for the same crime and had heard the evidence adduced by the defendant to support the plea of insanity. It was familiar with the appearance and conduct of the prisoner during the period of that trial, and had sufficient grounds before it to judge as to the probability of his present sanity."

It is common knowledge that insanity may be chronic, yet with lucid intervals; that it is marked by periods of quiet and of storm; that one insane may at times demean himself as if entirely normal, and yet, without warning, suddenly become as dangerous as a Malay running amuck. There is no method in actual madness. The plea of insanity is that of a defendant, and he must be regarded as understanding the effect thereof. Section 20, Pen. Code. He therefore voluntarily submits the question of his insanity to the court of his trial. Although the direct issue is insanity at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, yet evidence of such insanity may also show that it is chronic and continuous or progressive and incurable, or evidence may be given " as to the mental condition of the defendant at the time of his trial." People v. Hoch, supra.It cannot, then, be said that a defendant who makes the plea of insanity and seeks to establish it did not have notice under this provision of a hearing that might reveal his condition of insanity at the time of his trial, and a hearing of which the result might be such commitment upon acquittal for insanity under the said provision of the Code of Criminal Procedure, as was made in this case. It cannot be said that the trial of a defendant intends that he is sane, for the reason that an insane man may be tried if he is competent to understand the proceeding and to make his defense. Section 20, Pen. Code; Freeman v. People, 4 Denio, 9, 47 Am. Dec. 216.The law makes a distinction between the mental irresponsibility which precludes trial for a crime, and that which excuses from liability for a crime. An act done by a person who is an idiot, imbecile, lunatic, or insane is not a crime, but one is not excused from criminal liability [117 N.Y.S. 325] as an idiot, imbecile, lunatic, or insane person, or of unsound mind, except at the time of the commission of the alleged criminal act he was laboring under such defect of reason as either not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or not to know that the act was wrong. But the prohibition against trial, sentence to punishment, or punishment is that one cannot be tried or sentenced or punished while in a state of idiocy, imbecility, lunacy, or insanity so as to be incapable of understanding the proceeding or making his defense. Sections 20, 21, Pen. Code. Such a commitment is not for the punishment of such a defendant, for there can be no punishment for him who has been acquitted, but it is for precaution for the public, made in the exercise of the police power of the state, which permits the restraint of an insane person who at large would be a danger to the peace and safety of the people. The commitment can last only so long as the defendant is insane, and he has the right at any time under the law to have his sanity determined upon habeas corpus.

Moreover, Freund on the Police Power says (section 255):

" The right to apply at any time for discharge has been held to reconcile even the absence of hearing in the first instance with the constitutional requirement of due process, and if upon such proceeding the petitioner is found to be insane, his detention may be continued."

In Dowdell's Case, 169 Mass. 387, 47 N.E. 1033,61 Am.St.Rep. 290, the petitioner applied for his discharge from commitment, in that the statute was unconstitutional because it did not require any notice to the insane person before the commitment was signed, and so violated the provisions of the Declaration of Rights that no subject shall be deprived of his liberty but by the judgment of his peers and the law of the land, and the provisions of the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States that no state shall deprive any person of liberty without due process of law. And the court said:

" The order of commitment settles nothing finally or conclusively against the person committed. It does not take from him the care or control of his property. It is not equivalent to the appointment of a guardian over him. Leggate v. Clark, 111 Mass. 308, 310.He is entitled as a matter of right to institute judicial proceedings under the statutes, to determine the necessity and propriety of his confinement. He is not denied the same protection of the laws which is enjoyed by all other persons in the commonwealth under like circumstances. He is not, therefore, deprived of liberty without due process of law, according to the judicial construction which has been put upon those words. Marchant v. Pennsylvania Railroad, 153 U.S. 380, 14 Sup.Ct. 894, 38 L.Ed. 751; Hallinger v. Davis, 146 U.S. 314, 321, 13 Sup.Ct. 105, 36 L.Ed. 986; Caldwell v. Texas, 137 U.S. 692, 11 Sup.Ct. 224, 34 L.Ed. 816; Dent v. West Virginia, 129 U.S. 114, 9 Sup.Ct. 231, 32 L.Ed. 623; Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22, 25 L.Ed. 989.*** And the right to institute judicial proceedings under the statutes is a sufficient protection of the liberty of the subject to meet constitutional requirements. Wares, Petitioner, 161 Mass. 70, 74, 36 N.E. 586; Miller v. Horton, 1 ...

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