September 10, 2007

Federal court strikes down portion of Adam Walsh Act

In a potentially important legal challenge, a federal appellate court has struck down part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

The Act, hailed by Sen. Orrin Hatch as "the most comprehensive child crimes and protection bill in our Nation's history," created a National Sex Offender Registry to identify, track, and confine sex offenders.

Friday's ruling, by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, strikes down the civil commitment portion of the law.

The law's "failure to require a court to find beyond a reasonable doubt that a person has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation prior to permitting the individual's indefinite involuntary civil commitment as a sexually dangerous person constitutes a violation of due process," states the ruling in U.S. v. Comstock.

The Act allows for civil commitment based on the lower legal standard of "clear and convincing evidence."

The challenge was brought by the North Carolina Federal Public Defenders on behalf of Graydon Comstock, who was sentenced to a 37-month prison term for receiving computer pornography via computer. After his prison term ended on Nov. 8, 2006, the government certified him as a "sexually dangerous person" under the civil commitment provision of the Walsh Act and kept him in confinement.

Grayson will not automatically go free as a result of Friday's ruling, as the court stayed imposition to give the government a chance to appeal.

The legal decision may portend a split among appellate courts on the constitutionality of the new law, according to law professor Corey Rayburn Yung, who posted about the decision on his "Sex Crimes" blog. See his blog for legal analysis and additional links.