First Circuit upholds civil commitment of sex offenders

[JURIST] A three judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] on Friday upheld [opinion text] the constitutionality of provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act [18 USC § 4248 text], which allow a person deemed "sexually dangerous" to be civilly committed after the expiration of a federal criminal sentence. Two members of the panel found that civil commitments were within the power granted to Congress under the Constitution's Necessary and Proper Clause [Article 1, Section 8] as an extension of the government's custodial responsibility for federal inmates. Likening the commitment of sex offenders to the continued hospitalization of an inmate suffering from a mental disease or defect under section 4246 [18 USC § 4246 text], the court ruled that the Supreme Court's decision in Greenwood v. United States [opinion text] recognizing federal authority to order civil commitments extends to sex offenders.


The exercise of a federal commitment power embodied in section 4248 operates to prevent the release into society at large of sexually dangerous persons as to whom the federal government has custodial responsibilities. Because that exercise is limited to cases in which the federal government has a custodial duty, and because the federal scheme respects state prerogatives in the field of civil commitment, we conclude that it is consistent with both the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

The court also noted that the federal government must defer to state authorities when seeking civil commitment, and therefore § 4248 operates only as a "gap-filler in situations in which states either cannot or do not wish to assume responsibility for sexually dangerous persons in federal custody."

In June, the US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari [JURIST report] in United States v. Comstock [docket], a Fourth Circuit case that struck down [JURIST report] the Walsh Act's civil commitment provisions under the Commerce Clause [text]. In September 2007, the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina [official website] ruled that the commitment process was unconstitutional [JURIST report] on federalism grounds. In 1997, the Supreme Court in Kansas v. Hendricks [text] upheld the constitutionality of a state civil commitment process that allowed the state to confine, in a state mental hospital, sexually violent criminal offenders because the confinement was civil in nature and thus did not involve criminal punishment.


 

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