Rights of People in Civil Commitment


A maze inside a head outlineA person who is “mentally ill” and “dangerous” can be made to get mental health treatment. There are specific rules about forcing a person to have mental health treatment. This kind of court case is called “civil commitment.” There are a number of technical things that must be done in a commitment case. This article will explain how it works in general. It will not cover every technical point.

When can a person be “committed”?
A person can be committed if a judge decides that the person is “seriously mentally impaired.” Seriously mentally impaired means that the person:
  • has a mental illness;
  • is not able to make decisions about getting treatment; and
  • is likely to hurt him or herself or others or has a history of lack of compliance with treatment.
How does a “civil commitment” case start?

Someone who believes that a person is “seriously mentally impaired” can file a paper with the clerk of court asking that the person be committed. Normally, there has to be another person sign a paper also. When that is done, a commitment case will be filed. The case will be confidential. That means that the public will not be able to see the file.

Not all commitment cases start with filing a paper. Sometimes a person might be picked up by a police officer because the person is mentally ill and because of that illness is likely to injure the person’s self or others if not immediately detained. The person would be taken to a hospital or nearby facility. The person will be examined and within twelve hours, the health care professional will need to contact a magistrate who will make a determination as to whether the person should continue to be held. A formal application for civil commitment will need to be filed or the person will have to be released.

What happens after papers are filed? 

A judge will look at the papers and decide what to do. The judge could dismiss the case if there is not a good reason to commit the person. If there is a good reason, the judge will set a hearing date. The judge will probably order that the person be picked up. The person will then be taken to a hospital for an examination and held until the hearing. The judge will also appoint a lawyer for the person. The papers will be given to the person and the person’s lawyer. The county attorney will also get copies of the papers.


What happens during the hearing?

The hearing may be informal. The hearing may be held in a courtroom, an office, a room in the hospital or through video conferencing. The hearing is not open to the public. Normally, the person will be at the hearing. If the person agrees to being committed, the hearing will be very informal and short. If the person does not agree, the hearing will be longer.

At the hearing, the county attorney will present the evidence about why the person needs to be committed. The lawyer for the person will present the evidence about why the person should not be committed. The judge will get a report from the doctor who examined the person. The doctor may also testify by telephone or in-person. There may be other witnesses.

What happens after the hearing?

After the hearing, the judge will make a decision. The judge might dismiss the case or order that the person be committed for treatment. The decision of the judge can be appealed. If the judge who decided the case was a “magistrate” or “referee,” an appeal can be filed to a district court judge within ten days. A decision of a district court judge can be appealed to the Iowa Supreme court within 30 days.

What rights does a person have after he or she is committed?

After the person has been committed, the medical officer of the hospital will need to file regular reports. These reports should tell the judge whether the person needs more treatment. The reports should also say if the person can be released or needs to go to a different place. Any time there is an order about placement, a notice should be given to the person under the commitment. The person then has the right to ask for a hearing on the placement.

A person who has been committed has the right to ask to be released. To do this, a paper is filed with the court. This paper is called, “A Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus.” When the paper is filed, the court should schedule a hearing. At the hearing, the court will consider whether the person should be released. 

A person who has been committed has a number of other rights. When a person receives notice or is picked up under a commitment, he or she should talk to the attorney who has been appointed. That attorney will explain the person’s rights.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

  • To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
  • apply online at iowalegalaid.org

If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org.   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.

*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice. 

Last Review and Update: Feb 13, 2024
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