Baker Act with a Bite

Written by: Kendra E. Parris
Posted on: June 14, 2023
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

How new criminal penalties in the Florida Mental Health Act may help protect patient rights

In 2022, the Florida legislature passed additional patient protections in the Florida Mental Health Act. Those new protections include potential criminal penalties for facilities (and staff) who willfully violate patient rights or conspire to hold someone without legal authority. Here is the specific language:


(a) A person may not knowingly and willfully:

1. Furnish false information for the purpose of obtaining emergency or other involuntary admission of another;

2. Cause or otherwise secure, or conspire with or assist another to cause or secure, any emergency or other involuntary procedure of another person under false pretenses; or

3. Cause, or conspire with or assist another to cause, without lawful justification, the denial to any person of any right accorded pursuant to this chapter.

(b) A person who violates this subsection commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 and by a fine not exceeding $5,000.

Note the opening line, which requires a fairly high level of intent: the person must both knowingly and willfully furnish false information, conspire to cause, or cause the denial of a patient’s rights or a wrongful Baker Act procedure. In an earlier draft of the bill, the line only required that the violation be done “knowingly.” The “willfully” language was added via amendment.

While it is not clear from the legislative history why this amendment was made, it is likely that they did not want to impose criminal penalties on lower-level employees who are ‘just following orders’ of a higher-level administrator or doctor. (For example, it is often the case that a doctor or administrator of a Baker Act receiving facility will instruct a social worker or nurse to have a patient sign documents. If the lower-level employee is being instructed to present documents that he or she believes the patient is not competent to sign, they may feel compelled to proceed anyway to avoid professional repercussions with the doctor or administrator issuing the instruction.)

Despite the high bar of intent, the new language is a massive step in the right direction. In the absence of criminal penalties for patient rights abuses, many Baker Act receiving facilities (and hospital emergency rooms) felt emboldened to commit patients without proper examinations or stretch insurance pre-approvals beyond the legal time frames allowed in the Baker Act.

If you feel that a facility or staff member knowingly and willfully violated a patient’s rights — or that they lied in order to have the patient committed, or committed for longer than legally allowed — you may now report that violation to the appropriate law enforcement agency in the county where the violation occurred. For facilities in incorporated areas, this will be the local police department, and for facilities in unincorporated areas, the report should be made to the county sheriff.