Brandon Hill, who was arrested after being shot by a Hollister Police officer on Dec. 8, 2020, and charged with arson, assaulting a peace officer, resisting arrest and making criminal threats against police officers as well as three family members, was determined to be not competent to stand trial. He will be transferred to a state hospital within four to six weeks, said his attorney Rohn Barrow.
On Sept. 15, 2021, Hill filled out an inmate request form that he had tried numerous times over nine months to contact his appointed public defender, Harry Damkar. He claimed Damkar did not return phone calls or request forms.
“I have decided it is in the best interest of my case and the courts to represent myself from this point forward,” he wrote.
What followed after firing his attorney were repeated court appearances where Judge Patrick Palacios attempted to guide Hill through the complexities of the law and insisted a public defender be beside him to provide advice. Hill was often argumentative and at the last appearance he shouted at the judge about the delays.
A written report from a court-appointed doctor was submitted and Palacios found on Dec. 15 that Hill was mentally incompetent. Hill was ordered to be committed to Atascadero State Hospital, or another institution as determined by the director of the state Department of Health, for care and treatment until it was determined he regained competency.
Barrow told BenitoLink on Dec. 19 that once Hill arrives at the hospital “they will attempt to restore him to competency,” which he said could include therapy and psychotropic medication “to where he can work effectively with counsel or give him an education as to what the rules are.”
Barrow said if Hill returns to the county and is still determined to be incompetent to stand trial he would be “fit for a conservatorship.”
The county would most likely be responsible and he would be placed on a “spectrum of less restricted environment,” meaning that if he is not a danger to himself or others he could be treated by Behavioral Health, which Barrow described as the “public health guardian for the county.” However, If he is considered dangerous, he could be sent to a locked facility.
The 2021-22 Civil Grand Jury report on Behavioral Health discovered there were lengthy waiting periods to schedule appointments for initial and urgent services.
Barrow said if Hill were returned to the community under a conservatorship scenario, he would be reevaluated every year or two.
“Once he goes down that road there’s the possibility of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,’” he said. “The family thinks he needs mental health. My take on that day, he was having a psychological breakdown and he should have been 5150’d and received care.”
5150 is a police code that refers to a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization. This is considered an involuntary hold and refers to the number of the section of the Welfare and Institutions Code that allows a person with a mental challenge to be involuntarily detained.
In June 2020 the Hollister City Council approved funding of $160,000 for a three-year period for a police officer to be trained on de-escalating non-criminal, mental health-related cases. Behavioral Health and the city of Hollister created Support, Awareness, Follow-up & Engagement (S.A.F.E.) team, for prevention and early Intervention that includes Hollister Police Officer Stacy Esqueda and a Behavioral Health employee. Esqueda is then supposed to train her colleagues.
In fall 2021, the county established that individuals on 5150 holds are medically cleared at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital and are assessed by county Behavioral Health staff for whether they can safely be released or instead referred for psychiatric hospital placement.
BenitoLink requested confirmation from District Attorney-elect Joel Buckingham and Stacy White at Behavioral Health regarding whether Hill was ever put on a 5150 hold, and if he was examined by Behavioral Health while at the hospital or while being held at the county jail.
Buckingham said he could not comment on Hill’s medical history.
“The court process for ‘competency determinations’ involves the appointment of a court-approved psychologist from a rotating list of court-approved examiners,” he said. “In the law an individual is presumed competent, and so that in the absence of evidence a person is considered competent until otherwise shown.”
White did not respond in time for publication.
Related BenitoLink stories:
We need your help. Support local, nonprofit news! BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is committed to this community and providing essential, accurate information to our fellow residents. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s public service, nonprofit news.