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Court Ordered Treatment

While voluntary treatment should always be tried first, a civil commitment, often referred to as ‘Section 35’ or ‘sectioning’ of a loved one, is a legal process by which an individual has a family member or spouse involuntarily placed in a facility for addiction treatment. In Massachusetts, the civil commitment process is defined in Chapter 123 Section 35 of Massachusetts General Law. Law enforcement officials, physicians, and probation officers may also use the Section 35 civil commitment process. The person seeking to place an individual in treatment for substance use is known as the “petitioner.” In Massachusetts, the petitioner must obtain a Section 35 order from a judge. The Section 35 order is also known as a Medical Warrant of Apprehension. This process is completely confidential; it is not an arrest, does not appear on a CORI and does not disqualify an individual from employment opportunities.


When can a Section 35 be used?

While voluntary treatment should be tried first, a Section 35 civil commitment is used as a last resort when a family member or spouse’s alcohol or drug use results in risk for serious harm to him/herself or others or it has become life threatening. A Section 35 can be used only when the individual is actively using drugs or alcohol. Adolescents can also be civilly committed and will be sent to a Department of Public Health licensed treatment center for adolescents for age appropriate treatment.


How do I get a Section 35 Civil Commitment?

The process begins with the parent or family member who is petitioning the court for commitment to gather evidence that indicates why their loved one is a danger to him/herself or others. A Section 35 civil commitment is a stressful, emotional event for the family and for the individual with the substance use disorder, so it is best to be completely prepared. Keep a list, diary or calendar with incidents that can be used to prove the case to the court clinician and the judge. The court is concerned only with events that have occurred during the last two weeks.


Type of Incidents to Document

  • Overdose
  • Car Accidents
  • Committing or being the victim of violent behavior
  • Driving while intoxicated/high
  • Significant infections or health conditions
  • Burn marks on clothing or bedding
  • Being intoxicated in the home when small children or elderly people are present
  • Pregnancy
  • Suicide attempts or threats

The petition for a Section 35 civil commitment must be filed at the court in the jurisdiction, or location, where your loved one lives or is staying. For Natick residents, that court is Natick District Court, located at 600 Concord Street in Framingham. Most courts open at 8:30AM. It is best to arrive early since the process can take several hours. Bring the evidence you have gathered. If a warrant is granted, you will need to provide the location of your loved one. In each court in Massachusetts, the process occurs in the following way:


1. Meet with the court clinician

Visit the office of the court clinician. Ask for and fill out a form for a Section 35 civil commitment and then give it to the court clinician. The clinician will review the form and interview you to determine if there is enough evidence to present the case to the judge.

2. Going before the judge

If the clinician decides there is enough evidence to grant a civil commitment, he or she will present the case to the judge. The judge may decide to ask the petitioner a few questions. If the judge agrees with the clinician, he or she orders a Medical Warrant of Apprehension.

3. Serving the warrant

After the judge issues the warrant, the police will be sent to pick up your loved one. The police cannot enter by force when serving a warrant for a civil commitment, so you must ensure that someone will be there to let them in. An individual can be sectioned for treatment from home, custody, or from a hospital. A Section 35 warrant is in effect for 24 hours. In order to transport your loved one to the court safely, they will be placed in handcuffs. Although this is difficult to see, it is important to remember this is not a criminal arrest and that their addiction has already trapped them in handcuffs that cannot be seen.

4. Court Hearing- Granting the Section 35 Civil Commitment

The court will appoint an attorney to represent your loved one. Most judges will rely on the evidence you documented and the opinion of the clinician. Once a judge orders a civil commitment and there are no open criminal cases, your loved one will be sent to a secure treatment center licensed by the MA Department of Public Health (DPH) for up to 90 days. In most cases, they will be admitted for 14-20 days.

If DPH licensed Section 35 programs are full and the civil commitment has been ordered by the Judge, the commitment must occur and your loved one will be placed in a correctional facility.