The state of California has learned a bit of a lesson from history. Recently, a Second District Court of Appeals decision has strengthened the defense attorney-client relationship by making it almost as airtight as a therapist’s relationship with their patient. It could be argued that this debate has been ongoing – at least since the 1974 and 1976 Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California I & II.
In what came to be known as the “Tarasoff Case,” a fellow student from India – Prosenjit Poddar, murdered a young woman by the name of Tatiana Tarasoff. Although Tarasoff had shared but a few exchanges with Poddar, he became unreasonably attached to her, so much so that he sought psychiatric help at his roommate’s urging. The psychologist, Dr. Lawrence Moore, who saw Poddar on several occasions, attempted several times to have him committed after Poddar made threats against Tarasoff. However, the university police force at the time decided for themselves that Poddar was harmless and let him go. Poddar killed Tarasoff in her home less than a year later.
The Tarasoff decision brought to light the very difficult position that mental health professionals are in when clients make threats against a third party. Yet, this may be an arguable point in the psychiatric world – it is not the same for defense attorneys. Part of a successful defense attorney’s job is to ensure that their client receives a fair trial. Now that the Second District Court of Appeals has determined that this right overrides the duty to report other crimes – like child abuse, for one – a balance of confidentiality and fairness seems to have been reestablished.
Though no one would argue that what happened to Tatiana Tarasoff was pleasant, Dr. Lawrence Moore neither needed nor desired to breach confidentiality with Poddar in order to prevent this horrible crime. Many agree that it was the failure of the campus police to act on Dr. Moore’s instructions that allowed Tarasoff’s death to occur. Now, in light of this new decision, a therapist may go directly to an individual’s defense attorney with any such suspicions and the decision as to whether to act to prevent these will be left in the capable hands of legal professionals.