Fourth Circuit finds federal civil commitment of sex offenders unconstitutional

[JURIST] A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] that Congress acted beyond its authority when it enacted a law that allows indefinite federal civil commitment of "sexually dangerous" offenders beyond the end of their sentences. The indefinite civil commitment was authorized by 18 U.S.C. § 4248 [text], as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act [text, White House backgrounder], signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, which also established [JURIST report] a national sex offender registry, increased punishments for some federal crimes against children, and strengthened child pornography protections. In upholding the decision [JURIST report] by district court Judge W. Earl Britt, Judge Diana Gribon Motz [official profile] held that the right of civil commitment was reserved strictly for the states, stating:

The power claimed by § 4248 — forcible, indefinite civil commitment — is among the most severe wielded by any government. The Framers, distrustful of such authority, reposed such broad powers in the states, limiting the national government to specific and enumerated powers.
The court rejected the government's contentions that federal power of civil commitment came from the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause of the US Constitution.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 was sponsored by Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) [official website] and was named for the son of America's Most Wanted host John Walsh, who was abducted from a shopping mall and murdered. The Act has been dubbed the most aggressive step against sex offenses taken by Congress to date. The Fourth Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule on the subject.


 

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