Federal appeals court upholds indefinite detention of mentally ill sex offenders

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously Monday that a federal law allowing for the indefinite detention of mentally ill sex offenders is constitutional. On remand from the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit found that the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act [18 USC § 4248 text], which allows a district court to order the civil commitment of a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond the date he or she would otherwise be released, does not violate due process. According to the act, a court would need to prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that the sex offender is still a threat to the public. The plaintiffs in the case, inmates who face civil commitment for sex offenses, argued that the low standard of proof violated due process and should be elevated to "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," the same standard used in criminal cases. However, the court emphasized that such a high standard of proof is unnecessary:

Nothing in the Act requires that the finding of past conduct constitute criminal behavior. By its terms, the Act mandates a finding that a person "has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation." The Act does not define the terms "sexually violent conduct" and "child molestation," which are broad enough to encompass noncriminal conduct such as unlawful, tortious conduct.
Although the inmates argued that indefinite detention mirrored criminal imprisonment, the court insisted that, unlike criminal incarceration, the law called for the release of individuals deemed to no longer be threats to society and allowed for third parties to request the release of such individuals every six months.

The Supreme Court upheld the act [JURIST report] in May in United States v. Comstock [Cornell LII backgrounder] and remanded to the Fourth Circuit. The court said the act was constitutional because the Necessary and Proper Clause [text] granted Congress sufficient authority to pass such laws. A month later, the court made another decision concerning sex offenders in Carr v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder, JURIST report], ruling that the failure to register provision [18 USC § 2250] of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) [DOJ backgrounder] does not apply retroactively [JURIST report] to offenses occurring before SORNA's enactment. The court agreed to hear the case [JURIST report] in order to reconcile a split in the reading of the statute between the Seventh and Tenth Circuits.

 

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