O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563; 95 S. Ct. 2486; 45 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1975)

O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563; 95 S. Ct. 2486; 45 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1975)

Facts—For almost fifteen years, the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee confined Kenneth Donaldson as a mental patient “for care, maintenance and treatment.” He had made frequent requests for release; responsible persons had agreed to care for him if necessary; he was not dangerous to himself or others; and he had not received treatment for any mental illness at the hospital. Dr. O’Connor, the hospital superintendent during most of the period of confinement, cited a state law that authorized indefinite custodial confinement of the “sick.”

Question—Was the state law authorizing indefinite custodial confinement for mentally ill individuals who were not dangerous to others valid under the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsJ. Stewart (9–0). A state cannot constitutionally confine without consent a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends. This violates a person’s right to liberty. “A finding of ‘mental illness’ alone cannot justify a state’s locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement. Assuming that term can be given a reasonably precise content and that the ‘mentally ill’ can be identified with reasonable accuracy, there is still no constitutional basis for confining such persons involuntarily if they are dangerous to no one and can live safely in freedom.”

Note—In Addington v. Texas, 439 U.S. 908 (1979), the Court held that a state needed clear and convincing evidence that a person constituted a danger to society before it could confine him or her.

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