Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980)

Author: U.S. Supreme Court

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Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980)

Vitek v. Jones

No. 78-1155

Argued December 3, 1979
Decided March 25, 1980
445 U.S. 480



Appellee, a convicted felon, was transferred from state prison to a mental hospital pursuant to a Nebraska statute (§ 83-180(1)) which provides that, if a designated physician or psychologist finds that a prisoner "suffers from a mental disease or defect" that "cannot be given proper treatment" in prison, the Director of Correctional Services may transfer the prisoner to a mental hospital. In an action challenging the constitutionality of § 83-180(1) on procedural due process grounds, the District Court declared the statute unconstitutional as applied to appellee, holding that transferring him to the mental hospital without adequate notice and opportunity for a hearing deprived him of liberty without due process of law contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, and that such transfers must be accompanied by adequate notice, an adversary hearing before an independent decisionmaker, a written statement by the factfinder of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the decision, and the availability of appointed counsel for indigent prisoners. The court permanently enjoined the State from transferring appellee (who meanwhile had been transferred back to prison) to the mental hospital without following the prescribed procedures. Subsequently, appellee was paroled on condition that he accept mental treatment, but he violated that parole and was returned to prison. Relying on appellee’s history of mental illness and the State’s representation that he was a serious threat to his own and others’ safety, the District Court held that the parole and revocation thereof did not render the case moot, because appellee was still subject to being transferred to the mental hospital.

Held: The judgment is affirmed as modified. Pp. 486-497; 497-500.

Affirmed as modified.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, IV-A, and V, concluding that:

1. The District Court properly found that the case is not moot. The reality of the controversy between appellee and the State has not been lessened by the cancellation of his parole and his return to prison, where he is protected from further transfer by the District Court’s judgment and injunction. Under these circumstances, it is not "absolutely clear," absent the injunction, that the State’s alleged wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur. Pp. 486-487.

2. The involuntary transfer of appellee to a mental hospital implicates a liberty interest that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 487-494.

(a) The District Court properly identified a liberty interest rooted in § 83-180(1), under which a prisoner could reasonably expect that he would not be transferred to a mental hospital without a finding that he was suffering from a mental illness for which he could not secure adequate treatment in prison. The State’s reliance on the opinion of a designated physician or psychologist for determining whether the conditions warranting transfer exist neither removes the prisoner’s interest from due process protection nor answers the question of what process is due under the Constitution. Pp. 488-491.

(b) The District Court was also correct in holding that, independently of § 83-180(1), the transfer of a prisoner from a prison to a mental hospital must be accompanied by appropriate procedural protections. Involuntary commitment to a mental hospital is not within the range of conditions of confinement to which a prison sentence subjects an individual. While a conviction and sentence extinguish an individual’s right to freedom from confinement for the term of his sentence, they do not authorize the State to classify him as mentally ill and to subject him to involuntary psychiatric treatment without affording him additional due process protections. Here, the stigmatizing consequences of a transfer to a mental hospital for involuntary psychiatric treatment, coupled with the subjection of the prisoner to mandatory behavior modification as a treatment for mental illness, constitute the kind of deprivations of liberty that requires procedural protections. Pp. 491-494.

3. The District Court properly identified and weighed the relevant factors in arriving at its judgment. Pp. 495-496.

(a) Although the State’s interest in segregating and treating mentally ill patients is strong, the prisoner’s interest in not being arbitrarily classified as mentally ill and subjected to unwelcome treatment is also powerful, and the risk of error in making the determinations required by § 83-180(1) is substantial enough to warrant appropriate procedural safeguards against error. P. 495.

(b) The medical nature of the inquiry as to whether or not to transfer a prisoner to a mental hospital does not justify dispensing with due process requirements. P. 495.

(c) Because prisoners facing involuntary transfer to a mental hospital are threatened with immediate deprivation of liberty interests, and because of the risk of mistaken transfer, the District Court properly determined that certain procedural protections, including notice and an adversary hearing, were appropriate in the circumstances present in this case. Pp. 495-496.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded in Part IV-B that it is appropriate that counsel be provided to indigent prisoners whom the State seeks to treat as mentally ill. Such a prisoner has an even greater need for legal assistance than does a prisoner who is illiterate and uneducated, because he is more likely to be unable to understand or exercise his rights. Pp. 496-497.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL concluded that, although the State is free to appoint a licensed attorney to represent a prisoner who is threatened with involuntary transfer to a mental hospital, it is not constitutionally required to do so, and that due process will be satisfied so long as such a prisoner is provided qualified and independent assistance. Pp. 497-500.

WHITE, J., announced the Court’s judgment and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, IV-A, and V, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part IV-B, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, post, p. 497. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 500. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 501.


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Chicago: U.S. Supreme Court, "Syllabus," Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980) in 445 U.S. 480 445 U.S. 481–445 U.S. 482. Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2022,

MLA: U.S. Supreme Court. "Syllabus." Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980), in 445 U.S. 480, pp. 445 U.S. 481–445 U.S. 482. Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: U.S. Supreme Court, 'Syllabus' in Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980). cited in 1980, 445 U.S. 480, pp.445 U.S. 481–445 U.S. 482. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2022, from