Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fourth Circuit holds that civil commitment statute comports with due process

United States v. Comstock, No. 07-7671, 2010 WL 4925389 (4th Cir. Dec. 6, 2010):

(This blog previously covered Timms v. Johns, a companion case decided by the Fourth Circuit on the same day.  Comstock controlled the habeas question in Timms, but did not involve a petition for writ of habeas corpus itself.  The statute in question specifically reserves the right to habeas relief.)

[UPDATE on 1/10/2012: The Fourth Circuit announces its panel decision in Timms: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-4th-circuit/1590792.html.]

The United States asked the District Court to order the civil commitment of five sexually dangerous individuals pursuant to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.  The District Court refused to do so on the ground that passing the Act exceeded Congress's the authority, a finding with which the Fourth Circuit agreed.  The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Constitution authorized Congress to enact the statute, and remanded to the Fourth Circuit to determine whether the statute comports with the Fifth Amendment's due process requirement.

Respondents faced two hurdles:  First, a Court must presume that Congress has complied with the Constitution, even when it is alleged that a statute denies procedural due process.  Second, facial challenges—like the one here—are generally disfavored.  Such challenges cannot succeed if a statute has a plainly legitimate sweep.

The Adam Walsh Act requires the Government to prove by clear and convincing evidence three elements.  The first of these three elements is the one challenged.  That element requires the Government to prove that the person sought to be civilly committed has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation.  Respondents argue that this element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt because the resulting loss of liberty is comparable in seriousness to a criminal conviction, not the civil label the statute uses.

Three conclusions establish the Court's reasoning for finding in favor of the Government.  First, "the terms 'sexually violent conduct' and 'child molestation' . . . are broad enough to encompass noncriminal conduct such as unlawful, tortious conduct."  Second, the Act applies to individuals against whom all criminal charges have been dismissed for reasons for mental illness or incompetence to stand trial.  Third, the Act has no scienter requirement, as traditional criminal statutes do.  The requisite factual finding under the Act is limited to bad sexual conduct without regard to whether criminal culpability could also be shown.

The Court explained the difference between civil and criminal commitment proceedings.  In civil commitment proceedings, there may be factual issues to resolve, but these factual issues represent only the beginning of the inquiry.  A court, in civil commitment proceedings, must go beyond the beginning of the inquiry and also determine if a person is mentally ill, dangerous, and in need of confined therapy.  When making these determinations, which turn on the meaning of the facts which must be interpreted by experts, the strict, criminal standard of proof is unnecessary.  In contrast, criminal or delinquency proceedings turn on that beginning factual inquiry itself.

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit held that the statute comports with the Fifth Amendment's due process requirement because of the layers of professional review and continuous opportunities for an erroneous commitment to be corrected.  One of these opportunities is the right to petition for habeas relief or ask the Court to order discharge and, if denied, renew this request repeatedly every 180 days after a denial.

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded.

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