November 16, 2007

California court upholds indeterminate commitment of Sexually Violent Predators

An appellate court yesterday denied a challenge by a group of civilly committed sex offenders to the state's new Jessica's Law.

The sex offenders had argued that the indeterminate commitment provision of Jessica's Law did not apply retroactively to them. Prior to last year's passage of the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act (Proposition 83, or Jessica's Law), civilly committed sex offenders were entitled to a jury trial every two years on the issue of whether they remained mentally disordered and dangerous. Now, commitments are for an indefinite period. A group of previously committed sex offenders whose recommitment petitions were pending when the law passed had argued that they should either be released or, at minimum, should remain entitled to a new hearing every two years. A new law cannot be applied retroactively unless it specifically says so in the text of the law, they pointed out.

In the ruling, Bourquez v. Superior Court, the Third District Court of Appeal disagreed. Using rather strained logic, the court held that it is not a retroactive action to apply the new law's commitment criteria, because an extension hearing is "a new and independent proceeding" aimed at determining the person's current mental state. Under California's SVP law, a sex offender may be civilly committed if he has a mental disorder that keeps him from controlling his sexually violent behavior, making him dangerous and likely to sexually reoffend. (See Hubbart v. Superior Court, 1999, 19 Cal.4th 1138.)

The intention of both Jessica's Law and a similar bill passed by the state Legislature earlier last year (the Sex Offender Punishment, Control, and Containment Act of 2006, SB 1128) was to increase the punishment and control of sex offenders, not to let some SVP's go free, the court pointed out.

Much of the media coverage of Jessica's Law has focused on its residency restrictions banning sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks, its longer periods of parole, and its requirement that sex offenders be monitored for life using global positioning technology.

But the changes in the SVP laws under which people may be civilly committed after serving their criminal sentences were also significant. The previous requirement of two separate victims was reduced to only one victim. The single offense may have been committed as a juvenile. And the requirement of "substantial sexual conduct" in crimes against children was eliminated. Theoretically, then, the new law might allow lifetime commitment of a 16-year-old who had fondled a child on a single occasion.

Yesterday's ruling will likely further foment the unrest I've been reporting (here and here) among the men being held at Coalinga State Hospital.

The full text of the ruling in Bourquez v. Superior Court (2007 SOS 6712) is available here. The changes to California statutory law made by Jessica's Law are viewable here. (The SVP provisions fall under Welfare & Institutions Code sections 6600 et seq.) California's Department of Mental Health also has a listing of related statutes and legal cases, online here.
Photo credit: lyzadanger - "The End of Coalinga, California" (Creative Commons license)