January 9, 2009

Court strikes down federal civil commitment law

In a big blow to the federal Adam Walsh Act, an appellate court has upheld a challenge to the civil commitment portion of the law.

The opinion by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms a lower court ruling in the case, U.S. v. Comstock, which I blogged about back in September of 2007.

The challenge was brought by the North Carolina Federal Public Defenders on behalf of Graydon Comstock, who received a 37-month prison sentence for receiving pornography via computer. When his term ended two years ago, the government certified him as a "sexually dangerous person" and kept him in civil confinement, where he has remained ever since. The ruling will affect at least three other men also held at the Federal Correctional Institution at Butner, North Carolina.

This was the first appellate court to address the constitutionality of the civil commitment portion of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which has divided trial courts around the nation.

The court held that the civil commitment portion of the law exceeds federal authority:
The Constitution does not empower the federal government to confine a person solely because of asserted 'sexual dangerousness' when the Government need not allege (let alone prove) that this 'dangerousness' violates any federal law….

Consistent with its role in maintaining a penal system, the federal government possesses broad powers over persons during their prison sentences. But these powers are far removed from the indefinite civil commitment of persons after the expiration of their prison terms, based solely on possible future actions that the federal government lacks power to regulate directly.
The federal government, the court wrote, does not have the power to "regulate all sexual violence, including acts which violate no criminal statute."
Congress’s perceived need for the sort of civil commitment statute at issue here does not create constitutional power where none exists. Congress must instead seek alternative, constitutional means of achieving what may well be commendable objectives.
The court noted that if federal authorities have "serious concerns" about a federal prisoner's future dangerousness, they may notify state authorities, "who may use their well-settled police and parens patriae powers to pursue civil commitment under state law." Federal authorities may even financially underwrite such actions, the court said.

At least 20 states have enacted such civil commitment procedures for Sexually Violent Predators over the past two decades.

In upholding the district court's 2007 opinion, the circuit court did not specifically affirm a second reason given by the lower court for striking down the civil commitment portion of the Adam Walsh law. The lower court had held that the legal standard of "clear and convincing" proof was too low, and that due process required that danger be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" before a person was preemptively detained. By avoiding that issue, the circuit court appears not to disturb laws in some states that require a lower standard of proof.

Further resources:

4th Circuit Opinion, U.S. v. Graydon Earl Comstock Jr.

Federal court strikes down portion of Adam Walsh Act (blog post of Sept. 10, 2007)

"4th Circuit Got it Right in Comstock," analysis by law professor Corey Rayburn Yung