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United States v. Dalasta

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

May 8, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Kevin Allen Dalasta, Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: January 13, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Des Moines

          Before LOKEN, BEAM, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

          LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

         Kevin Dalasta, who suffers from depression, anxiety, and medically intractable epilepsy, became upset and held a gun to his chin following an argument with his father. Police officers were called to the parents' residence in Polk County, Iowa, and removed four firearms. Dalasta was indicted for being a prohibited person in possession of the firearms in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(4) and 924(a)(2). He was released into his father's custody.

         The government moved for a hearing to determine Dalasta's competency to stand trial. See 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a). Dr. Eric Barlow conducted an outpatient evaluation and reported that "it would not be possible to restore Kevin to a level of competency to stand trial." See § 4241(b). After hearings in December 2015 and March 2016, see § 4241(c), the district court[1] found by a preponderance of the evidence that Dalasta was not competent to stand trial. Pursuant to § 4241(d), the court committed him to the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") to determine whether his competency could be restored. Dalasta appeals the commitment order, arguing (i) the district court erred in construing § 4241(d) as requiring commitment when uncontested facts establish that treatment cannot restore his competency to stand trial; (ii) a strict interpretation of § 4241(d) is unconstitutional as applied to him; and (iii) the district court erred in neglecting alternate means of accomplishing the statute's purpose. We have jurisdiction to review this interlocutory order under the collateral order doctrine. See United States v. Henriques, 698 F.3d 673, 673 (8th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 1513 (2013). Reviewing issues of law de novo, we affirm.

         I.

         Dalasta underwent a temporal lobectomy to remedy worsening seizures in March 2012. At the time, he was facing a charge of vehicular homicide in Polk County District Court. Based on an evaluation by psychiatrist Michael Taylor, the state court suspended the proceedings indefinitely, see Iowa Code § 812.5(2), and granted the State's request for additional medical examination to determine if Dalasta could be restored to competency. In July 2012, Dr. Taylor reported to the state court: "Mr. Dalasta is Not Competent to stand trial, and most-likely never will be." Dr. Barlow reported in August 2012: "I am providing Mr. Dalasta with . . . biological treatment for his PTSD and depression/anxiety . . . . It is impossible for Mr. Dalasta to be restored to competency, as his cognitive problems . . . are the result of the removal of the [left temporal lobe] of his brain. These are not reversible changes." Dr. Robert Jones opined in March 2013 that Dalasta would never regain competency to stand trial. After a hearing, the state court found in May 2013 there was no substantial probability that Dalasta's competency could be restored in a reasonable amount of time and dismissed the state court prosecution without prejudice.

         In his initial report to the district court in this case, Dr. Barlow stated: "My report on [Dalasta's] status is essentially the same as it was in August 2012 when I felt clearly, and still do, that it would not be possible to restore Kevin to a level of competency to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to even begin to assist himself in his own defense." Dr. Barlow concluded that these problems "are never going to change." The district court recognized at the December 2015 hearing that it could find by clear and convincing evidence that Dalasta cannot be restored to competency because part of his brain is "simply missing. That's not going to change, based on our evaluation." The court requested briefing to determine whether § 4241(d) required that Dalasta be committed to the Attorney General's custody, or permitted the court other options.

         At the March 2016 hearing, defense counsel argued against mandatory commitment, relying on years of medical records, the state court's prior ruling, and a recent report from Dr. Barlow stating: "To transfer Kevin to the Bureau of Prisons is a waste of resources [and] will not provide any new meaningful information to this case. Kevin has had literally brain surgery in the form of a temporal lobectomy to eliminate his seizure disorder. This has resulted in cognitive and memory deficits that will not improve with time." A questionnaire asked whether there is "any length of inpatient treatment that can be provided to Kevin to allow him to gain a level of competency that would permit him to proceed with his federal case." Dr. Barlow replied, "absolutely not." Counsel argued that commitment to the BOP would be potentially harmful, removing Dalasta from his family, who administer his medication "like clockwork, " to a BOP facility where he may receive generic drugs.

         Defense counsel urged the court to proceed immediately to a dangerousness hearing under 18 U.S.C. § 4246(d), which determines whether a defendant whose competence to stand trial cannot be restored "is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect as a result of which his release would create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person or serious damage to property of another." The government argued that the plain language of § 4241(d) and governing Eighth Circuit precedent mandated that Dalasta first be committed to the custody of the Attorney General to complete an assessment of whether he could regain the competence to stand trial, and if not, an initial evaluation of the § 4246 dangerousness determination.

         The district court noted the unique fact that "[t]here's no fix" to the missing part of Dalasta's brain. Nonetheless, the court concluded, § 4241(d) mandates commitment of a defendant found incompetent to the custody of the Attorney General: "[T]he statute says 'shall' . . . [a]nd the cases follow that same analysis." The court stated that "the next stage we're going to reach pretty clearly is the dangerousness assessment [under § 4246], and [the BOP] may be able to help us in that assessment with their observations of him." Because Dalasta must rely on his elderly parents as care-givers, the court noted that a BOP assessment would be useful in determining "how he will do in a structured environment whe[n] his parents aren't an option and whether or not that has to be in a custodial situation or whether he might do well in a residential facility of some kind. . . . The BOP are experts at that kind of analysis." Consistent with § 4241(d), the court entered a sealed Order committing Dalasta to the BOP for no longer than four months to complete the restoration-of-competency assessment. The court permitted him to self-report to the designated BOP facility, requested that the BOP expedite its competency evaluation, and stayed its Order pending this appeal.

         II.

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