Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Court Revives Challenge to Detention of Sexually Violent Predators
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A constitutional challenge to the way alleged sexually violent predators are treated after their prison terms have expired but before they have been through civil commitment proceedings was revived yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lengthy detention of such inmates in county jails, under the same conditions as criminal defendants, raises substantive due process concerns and requires the state to bear the burden of justifying the conditions of confinement, Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher wrote for the panel.
The court reinstated a federal civil rights suit brought by Oscar W. Jones, who filed the pro per action in district court in Sacramento four years ago, claiming that his confinement to the Sacramento County Jail for more than two years after his prison term expired was unconstitutional. Jones named Sacramento County and its sheriff, Lou Blanas, as defendants.
The Sexually Violent Predator Act allows the state to confine inmates whose prison sentences have expired, but who are deemed to be sexual predators, for successive periods of up to two years each.
To be classified as a sexually violent predator, an inmate must have been convicted of two violent sexual offenses and must be found to suffer from a mental disease or defect which makes the person “likely to engage in acts of sexual violence without appropriate treatment.”
Potential SVPs are screened by the Department of Corrections before their sentences expire. If corrections officials believe the inmate is an SVP, they notify the Department of Mental Health, which conducts a full evaluation.
DMH names two mental health professionals to conduct an evaluation. If both agree that the inmate meets the “likely to” standard, the director of mental health notifies the district attorney in the county where he was last convicted.
The district attorney may then file a petition for commitment to a state hospital, in which case a probable cause hearing—similar to a preliminary hearing in a felony case—is held. If probable cause is found, either side may request a jury trial on the issue of whether the inmate is an SVP.
Probable cause hearings are supposed to be held within 55 days, but in practice are often delayed for months.
Jones had been incarcerated at the state prison in Susanville on a parole violation in June 1997 and ordered to serve six months. Shortly before he was to be released, sexually violent predator proceedings were commenced in Sacramento Superior Court and he was transferred to the jail to await the outcome.
Jones’ probable cause hearing was not completed until 10 months later, and resulted in his being held for trial on the commitment petition. A jury trial ending in December 1999 resulted in his being found to be a sexually violent predator, and he was transferred to Atascadero State Hospital the following month.
In his federal court complaint, Jones alleged, among other things, that he had been kept in administrative segregation; deprived of recreation, exercise, fresh air and sunlight; barred from attending Christian worship services; deprived of access to courts because he could not use the law library; and subjected to unreasonably intrusive strip searches.
District Court Ruling
Chief Judge William Shubb of the Eastern District of California granted summary judgment to the defendants. He ruled that the action was barred by the one-year statute of limitations, that the complained-of conditions of confinement did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation, and that there was no showing that the strip searches were the result of an action of the sheriff or a policy of the county.
But Fletcher said the action was timely under the doctrine of equitable tolling, noting that California law extends the statute of limitations for up to two years if the plaintiff is incarcerated.
The appellate jurist acknowledged that as a civil detainee, Jones was not entitled to the benefit of the statute. But since he was in no better position to bring a timely action than if he were incarcerated pursuant to a criminal conviction, and because he pursued the action in good faith, equity required that his suit be considered on its merits.
Addressing the merits, Fletcher said the district judge erred in analyzing the claims as if Jones were facing criminal charges. As a civil detainee, Fletcher wrote, Jones was “entitled to conditions of confinement that are not punitive.”
On remand, the judge said, the government must establish that it had legitimate interests in subjecting Jones to the complained-of conditions and that it could not have imposed less harsh conditions that would have met those objectives.
The panel also reinstated Jones’ freedom-of-religion claim. Fletcher said his allegations that “as a believer of the Christian faith I believe that we ‘should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together,’” that “[w]ithout the benefit of communal services plaintiff was denied the uplifting of the spirit, the reassurance of fellow Christians that I am one with God, that we are saved by faith and not by deed” and that he “was denied the joy of communal praise of God” was sufficient to defeat summary judgment, which was based on a finding that denial of access to services did not impinge on his practice of religion.
The case is Jones v. Blanas, 02-17148.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company