California Supreme Court Upholds Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege

The Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA) allows California to keep sexually violent predators (SVP) locked up even after they have completed their prison sentences. The SVP receives a civil commitment trial to determine the risk of recidivism. Statistically, there is a high commitment rate for SVPs –a rate that could be even higher if courts waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege based on the dangerous patient exception. The dangerous patient exception applies when a “…psychotherapist has reasonable cause to believe that the patient is in such mental or emotional condition as to be dangerous to himself or to the person or property of another and that disclosure of the communication is necessary to prevent the threatened danger.”

Should the Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege be Waived under the Dangerous Patient Exception?

In January of 2007, the Santa Clara County District Attorney filed a petition seeking to commit Ramiro Gonzales as a SVP under the SVPA. Prior to the trial, the district attorney tried to obtain access to Gonzales’ psychological records from his mandatory outpatient psychological evaluation and counseling sessions. Gonzales opposed the disclosure as a violation of California’s statutory psychotherapist-patient privilege. The trial court concluded that disclosure of the records in an SVPA proceeding was permissible under the dangerous patient exception to the privilege. The trial court also determined, on the basis of the dangerous patient exception, that Gonzales’ therapist would be permitted to testify at the SVPA trial regarding Gonzales’ statements during their counseling sessions.

The jury found that Gonzales was an SVP within the meaning of the SVPA, and committed him for an indefinite term. The Court of Appeal reversed the decision, concluding that the trial court erred in ordering disclosure of Gonzales’ psychological records and permitting his former therapist to testify about statements made during his counseling sessions.

In March of 2013, the California Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal upholding the privilege. However, the court determined that the trial court error was not prejudicial and did not require reversal. The court concluded that the prejudicial nature of the error must be evaluated under the usual prejudicial error standard applicable to state law error set forth in the People v. Watson: Whether it is reasonably probable that the error affected the result. In this case, the court determined that the error did not affect the result.

Contact an Experienced Rancho Cucamonga Sex Crimes Attorney

Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense attorney John D. Lueck has over 35 years of experience aggressively defending individuals accused of sex offenses throughout Southern California. Mr. Lueck understands the sensitive nature of sex offense cases and works tirelessly to protect your interests while safeguarding the rights of all involved. Contact the Law Offices of John D. Lueck for a free consultation to discuss your case.

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