Emergency detention of persons with certain mental disorders during public health disasters: Legal and policy issues


  • Jon S. Vernick, JD, MPH
  • Maxim Gakh, JD, MPH
  • Lainie Rutkow, JD, PhD, MPH




law, emergency detention, mental health


Public health emergencies (disasters) are associated with mental health conditions ranging from mild to severe.When persons pose a danger to themselves or others, a brief emergency detention allows a mental health assessment to determine if a lengthier involuntary civil commitment is needed. Involuntary commitment requires participation of the civil justice system to provide constitutionally mandated due process protections. However, disasters may incapacitate the judicial system, forcing emergency detainees to be prematurely released if courts are unavailable. The authors review state laws regarding emergency detention of persons deemed a potential mental health-related danger. Although some states are well prepared for the dual impact of disasters on mental health and the court system, important gaps exist.The authors recommend that state laws anticipate the need for brief extensions of emergency detention periods without court participation. States should also include mental health considerations in their disaster preparedness plans for the court system.

Author Biographies

Jon S. Vernick, JD, MPH

Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.

Maxim Gakh, JD, MPH

Research Assistant, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.

Lainie Rutkow, JD, PhD, MPH

Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.


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How to Cite

Vernick, JD, MPH, J. S., M. Gakh, JD, MPH, and L. Rutkow, JD, PhD, MPH. “Emergency Detention of Persons With Certain Mental Disorders During Public Health Disasters: Legal and Policy Issues”. American Journal of Disaster Medicine, vol. 7, no. 4, Sept. 2012, pp. 295-02, doi:10.5055/ajdm.2012.0102.




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