August 29, 2008

Underground ruling on underground rules

SVP practice alert

This post is mainly to alert those of you practicing in the SVP area. The decision is from California, but may have relevance in other jurisdictions.

First, the background:

We all know about statutes and case law. But what about all those little government agency regulations that guide the enforcement of the laws? How are they issued and enforced?

Well, it turns out that in California, there is an Administrative Procedure Act (APA) that very specifically defines these rules and regulations and how they are to be issued and enforced. Rules include any "regulation, order, or standard of general application" that a state agency adopts in order to "implement, interpret, or make specific the law enforced or administered by it." And before issuing or enforcing any such rule, a state agency must file it with the Secretary of State and have it formally adopted as a regulation.

Who regulates the regulator? In California, that's the job of the little-known Office of Administrative Law (OAL).

OK, so now you understand the process. And here's why I am writing about it:

State's SVP protocol in violation

This month, the Office of Administrative Law handed down a decision against California's Department of Mental Health (DMH), saying its internal manual for SVP evaluators is an illegal "underground regulation." That's the OAL's term for a rule that is issued or enforced without the required approval of the Secretary of State.

The OAL held that the 68-page "Clinical Evaluator Handbook and Standardized Assessment Protocol" violates the law because it requires psychologists and psychiatrists on the state's panel of experts "to evaluate persons in accordance with the [manual’s] protocol."

The 2007 manual "mandate[s] how the evaluation is conducted and how the results of the evaluation are presented," despite the fact that the DMH "does not have the authority to dictate or control the standards or clinical profession of psychology or psychology," the OAL ruled.

The DMH had argued that the protocol was not a regulation, but just a general guide to assist clinical evaluators in making "case-specific determination[s] using their education, experience, and expertise ... in the exercise of their independent professional clinical judgment." The OAL found this argument unconvincing, quoting the manual as saying it "specifies the questions that must be answered and formats to be used." The handbook specifies how to conduct the clinical interview, collect historical information, and perform an assessment of a person's risk for sex offense recidivism.

The case was brought by Michael St. Martin, a leading activist among the sex offenders being civilly detained at Coalinga State Hospital.

What does the ruling mean in practice?

Once the OAL identifies a governmental rule as an "underground regulation," the agency is prohibited from enforcing it.

There is no muscle behind the proclamation, however, in that the OAL does not impose sanctions.

The OAL does mention that attorneys may bring up the regulation's status as an issue in any subsequent litigation. That means defense attorneys will have a heyday with state SVP panelists, some of whom are earning a cool half-million dollars per year cranking out these evaluations. Prepare for cross-examination questions on whether the evaluation methodology has any scientific basis and whether it has been peer reviewed.

The full decision is here. Photo credit: Eole (Creative Commons license).

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