Alaska lawmakers debate police use of ‘probable cause’ when transporting patients to mental health facilities


Shane Ersland


Alaska lawmakers continued to debate provisions of a mental health bill this week, as they aim to finish the bill’s amendment process.


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The Senate Health and Social Services Committee reviewed Senate Bill 124 for the eighth time Thursday. The committee first discussed the bill on April 27, 2021. SB 124 creates legal parameters for emergency admission, and holds at a 23-hour, 59-minute crisis stabilization center. It requires a mental health professional to examine the patient within three hours after arrival. It also expands the list of people who can cause a person to be taken into custody for delivery to a crisis stabilization center.

Sen. Lora Reinbold (R-Eagle River) proposed several amendments to SB 124 Thursday. One proposed changing guidelines law enforcement officers abide by when detaining and transporting patients to mental health facilities. Law enforcement officers currently use “probable cause” practices when determining whether someone should be detained and transported to a facility. But Reinbold wanted to alter the bill’s language so officers had to have “clear and convincing evidence” that the person is gravely disabled or suffering from mental illness before transporting them.

“To me, this is a big deal to be taking someone off the street and putting them in a stabilization [center], potentially injecting them with psychotropic medications, and keeping them for quite some time, potentially,” Reinbold said. “And sometimes without parental consent. This bill is rife with errors still, at this point in time.”

Alaska State Trooper Capt. David Willson said the change would spark training challenges for law enforcement officers.

“They’re very familiar with ‘probable cause,’ and the circumstances that need to be articulated for a probable cause finding,” Willson said. “But ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ we don’t train them in. So, there would be some initial confusion, and certainly some training, and time required to adopt new language in that regard. I can imagine some problems might result from that.”

Reinbold said she was bothered by the bill’s language because it did not capture the seriousness of the situation. 

“It doesn’t say ‘serious,’ and that’s the bottom line,” she said. “I think we need a higher standard. Is there any other word we could use here besides ‘probable cause?’ I think ‘clear and convincing evidence’ wouldn’t be that hard to train you guys on.”

Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) said the bill’s current language was acceptable for officers’ use in determining the severity of a situation, however.

“They’d have to have some clear indication there is a serious mental health situation and concern about harm,” Hughes said. “‘Probable cause’ does involve all those things. I’m comfortable with the language and not introducing a new thing.”

The proposed amendment failed by a vote of 4-1.