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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

“Postal Pooper” Case Illustrates Intersection of the Mental Health and Criminal Justice Systems

| May 2, 2013 | Mental Illness And Crime

On two separate occasions this year, a man defecated at the Springettsbury Post Office in York County, PA. The first time he defecated in the lobby, while the second time, he defecated on the sidewalk next to the post office. It goes without saying that such behavior is almost always associated with either mental illness or a high degree of intoxication. Given the fact that these incidents occurred during the day and on repeated occasions at the same location, it comes as no surprise that the suspect is mentally ill.

When the suspect came back to the post office a third time, the police managed to approach him before he could repeat his prior behavior. Recently, Sgt. Brian Wilbur of Springettsbury Township Police announced that no criminal charges would be filed but instead, the suspect will be “getting the help that he needs.” One can only assume that that means mental health treatment.

The police could have charged the suspect with criminal offenses such as indecent exposure, open lewdness and disorderly conduct. Indecent assault and open lewdness are misdemeanors, while disorderly conduct can either be charged as a misdemeanor or summary offense. In some cases, a far better option for the police is to file a “302 petition,” under Pennsylvania’s Mental Health Procedures Act. A 302 petition can be filed when it appears that a person poses a clear and present danger to himself or others, as a result of mental illness. Clearly, defecating in a heavily-trafficked, public place presents a health risk to many people.

Other mentally ill people are not as fortunate as the so-called “postal pooper.” I once represented a schizophrenic, homeless woman, who took off all of her clothes at a laundromat, and sat there naked as she did her laundry. She was charged with the exact same charges, which could have been filed against the “postal pooper.” Homeless people can almost never post bail, so she was held in jail, pending the outcome of her case. The problem is that she was so floridly psychotic, that she first had to become competent to understand the nature of her criminal charges and court proceedings, so that she could either stand trial or enter a guilty plea.

It took an entire year of involuntary, psychiatric treatment while incarcerated, before a forensic psychiatrist opined that the defendant was finally competent enough to proceed to trial. Following a brief bench trial, in which the Commonwealth did not challenge our insanity defense, the judge found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, and ordered her to continue with involuntary, psychiatric treatment pursuant to the Mental Health Procedures Act. Had the police simply filed a 302 petition in the first place, this schizophrenic woman would have received psychiatric treatment right away, at a much lower cost to the tax payers, rather than languishing in jail for a year.

Jails are not designed to be mental hospitals, but unfortunately, that is where many mentally ill people end up, when they commit low level crimes directly attributed to their untreated mental illness. I applaud Springettsbury Township Police for handling the postal pooper case in the best possible way for both the suspect and for society as a whole.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, with extensive experience in representing mentally ill, criminal defendants.


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