‘Gap cases’ involving the mentally ill — A problem Minnesota has failed to solve

The defendant charged with shooting a White Bear Lake police officer this week is the poster child for an issue plaguing Minnesota’s district courts and our state psychiatric hospitals — “gap cases.” 

Daniel Holmgren, 33, has been charged with attempted murder and several counts of 1st degree assault, after he shot through his bedroom door at police officers who were attempting to arrest him for a felony domestic assault arrest warrant. Holmgren struck one of the officers three times — fortunately, the injuries are not considered life-threatening.  Read the criminal complaint here.

The truly disturbing issue with the whole incident is that Holmgren, who is mentally ill, and the officers charged with having to arrest him, yet again, should never have been put in that position. 

A properly functioning court system with a properly functioning mental health component would have dealt with Holmgren’s previous domestic assaults and ensured the public’s safety though commitment until such time as Holmgren was dependably well. Instead, due to a lack of mental health infrastructure, Holmgren’s criminal cases have repeatedly stalled out in what is referred to as “gap case” status, leaving Holmgren, his family, police, and the public in limbo — and unfortunately in harm’s way.    

Gap cases, as they have become known, involve a criminal defendant who the court determines is incompetent to stand trial. This prevents prosecution of the defendant until they are restored to competency. In a properly functioning system, the court would issue a “Rule 20.01” order committing the defendant to a psychiatric hospital for competency restoration. The defendant would then be transferred from jail to medical custody while competency is restored.  After restoration, they would be transferred back to jail to resume the criminal case. Read more about competency restoration and gap cases here.

This system was in place and worked reasonably well in the 2010s. The state even passed what is known as the 48-hour rule to facilitate this. The 48-hour rule mandated that when a “Rule 20” order was issued, the Department of Human Services (DHS) had 48 hours to accept the defendant from jail and begin the competency restoration process. This prevented mentally ill people from languishing in and decompensating in jails throughout the state. 

Who would argue against that? Sadly, the DHS did.

Despite a state law requiring the Commissioner of DHS to act, the DHS inexplicably announced in December 2018 that it was not the state’s responsibility to restore competency, and that the DHS would no longer provide that service. This of course begs the rhetorical question, whose responsibility does the DHS feel it is? Read about DHS’s decision and its impact here.

As a result, since 2019 Minnesota courts have had no system of competency restoration to call on, and gap cases have simply languished. According to those aware of the situation, jails have been routinely holding gap case defendants for extended periods of time before they are either released with no action, or sent to a hospital where there are simply “stabilized” before being released. Their criminal cases just sit in limbo — unlikely to resolve themselves, as you can imagine. As a result, we have cases like Holmgren’s, whereby the mentally ill are not being helped, and our collective public safety is unnecessary put at risk.

During the final six minutes of the 2022 legislative session, our legislature passed into law the establishment of a Competency Restoration Task Force to address competency restoration on a state level. Unfortunately, in its haste, the legislature didn’t establish funding for this until 2024. That issue is one that has been addressed early in the 2023 session — unfortunately, the wheels of progress turn slowly at the state level, and a functioning competency restoration program is arguably a year or more away in any meaningful sense.

The mentally ill, their families, the public, and most certainly our police officers who are once again saddled with the failures of others, have deserved much better.