svpa compendium


United States Supreme Court

Year 2010

U.S. v. Comstock (08-1224 5/17/2010)
__ U.S. __ [130 S.Ct. 1949; 176 L.Ed.2d 878]
[1.] The Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress sufficient authority to enact 18 U.S.C. 4248, which authorizes court-ordered civil commitment by the federal government of "sexually dangerous" persons who are in custody. Congress has long enacted prison-related mental health statutes. Section 4248 parallels the older Section 4246, which authorizes the post-detention civil commitment of federal prisoners who are deemed mentally ill and dangerous.

Year 2003

Conn. Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe (01-1231 3/5/2003)
538 U.S. 1 [123 S.Ct. 1160; 155 L.Ed.2d 98]
[1.d.] The Connecticut sex offender registration act ("Megan's Law") does not deprive registrants of either a liberty interest or due process. Mere injury to reputation does not deprive one of liberty. Registrants have no due process right to a predeprivation hearing about whether they are currently dangerous because that determination is irrelevant to the statutory scheme. Respondent expressly relied upon a procedural challenge to the statute, and disavowed a substantive due process challenge.

Smith v. Doe (01-729 3/5/2003)
538 U.S. 84 [123 S.Ct. 1140; 155 L.Ed.2d 164]
[1.d.] The Alaska sex offender registration act ("Megan's Law") does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause because it is a civil, regulatory, non-punitive scheme.


Year 2002

Kansas v. Crane (00-0957 1/22/2002)
534 U.S. 407 [151 L.Ed.2d 856, 122 S.Ct. 867]
[3.] The Supreme Court concluded that a person cannot be committed as a dangerous sexual offender "without any lack-of-control determination." The court declined to give a "narrow or technical meaning" to the "lack-of-control" standard: "We recognize that in cases where lack of control is at issue, 'inability to control behavior' will not be demonstrable with mathematical precision. It is enough to say that there must be proof of serious difficulty in controlling behavior."


Year 2001

Seling v. Young (2001)
531 U.S. 250
[1.D.][1.E.] Although Washington State's Community Protection Act was found to be civil by the Washington State Supreme Court, and a similar statutory scheme, based on the Washington statute, was held to be civil by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kansas v. Hendricks (1997) 521 U.S. 346, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit here had concluded that respondent could nonetheless challenge the Washington statute as being punitive "as applied," and in violation of the double jeopardy and ex post facto clauses of the federal constitution. According to the Ninth Circuit, the lynchpin is not whether the act is civil, but whether the act was punitive "as applied." It reasoned that actual conditions of confinement could divest a facially valid statute of its civil label upon a showing by the clearest proof that the statutory scheme is punitive in effect. (When the constitutionality of the Washington statute was successfully challenged on due process and equal protection grounds, the statute was amended to correct those deficiencies, leaving only the ex post facto and double jeopardy issues.) The Ninth Circuit had then ordered the matter remanded for an evidentiary hearing. The United States Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, and here held that because the statute was previously found to be civil, the double jeopardy and ex post facto clauses do not apply. Agreeing with the approach taken by the Washington State Supreme Court, the proper remedy for constitutional violations in conditions of confinement as a sexually violent predator is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for damages and injunctive relief for violating civil rights under color of state law. Mr. Young cannot obtain release through an "as-applied" challenge to the Washington Act on double jeopardy or ex post facto grounds. The Supreme Court noted that an "as-applied" analysis would prove unworkable. Because conditions of confinement are not static, there could never be any conclusive final determination of the scheme's validity under the ex post facto and double jeopardy clauses, which is a query that must be answered definitely. The Court explicitly observed that it had not considered whether a court may look to actual conditions of confinement and implementation of the statute to determine in the first instance whether a confinement scheme is civil in nature.

Justices Scalia and Souter concurred, with Justice Thomas concurring separately.

Justice Stevens dissented, finding that Hudson v. United States (1997) 522 U.S. 93, acknowledges that resolving whether an Act is civil or criminal in nature can take into account whether the statutory scheme has a punitive effect. "If conditions of confinement are such that a detainee has been punished twice in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause, it is irrelevant that the scheme has been previously labeled as civil without full knowledge of the effects of the statute."


Year 1997

Kansas v. Hendricks (1997)
521 U.S. 346
[1.A.] The Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act permits the civil commitment of persons who, due to a "mental abnormality" or a "personality disorder," are likely to engage in "predatory acts of sexual violence." The preamble to the Kansas SVPA made it clear that the legislature had identified a "small but extremely dangerous group of sexually violent predators" who did not have a mental disease or defect rendering them appropriate for involuntary treatment under the general involuntary civil commitment statute. The group of "sexually violent predators," according to the Kansas Legislature, is characterized by anti-social personality features which are unamenable to existing mental illness treatment, but which nevertheless render them likely to engage in sexually violent behavior. The legislature found the likelihood of reoffending to be high. It also noted that the prognosis for rehabilitation of these people in prison was poor. The Kansas statute defined a sexually violent predator as "any person who has been convicted of or charged with a sexually violent offense and who suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in the predatory acts of sexual violence." The term "mental abnormality" was defined as a "congenital or acquired condition affecting the emotional or volitional capacity which predisposes the person to commit sexually violent offenses in a degree constituting such person a menace to the health and safety of others." Mr. Hendricks was a pedophile. This satisfied the "mental abnormality" element of the statute because "as a matter of Kansas state law, pedophilia qualified as a "mental abnormality." The Kansas' SVPA therefore satisfied "substantive due process" requirements. The Court began its analysis by noting that the "liberty" interest of an individual is not absolute and has been overridden in civil and criminal contexts. The Kansas SVPA required a finding of dangerousness to one's self or to others as a prerequisite to involuntary confinement. It also required the subject to have been charged with or convicted of a sexually violent offense. Finally, the Kansas SVPA required the subject to be found to suffer from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in the predatory acts of sexual violence.

Citing Schall v. Martin (1984) 467 U.S. 253, 278, Justice Thomas wrote: "From a legal point of view, there is nothing inherently unattainable about a prediction of future criminal conduct." And it does not matter that the terms used by the statute vary substantially from their psychiatric counterparts. The legal definition simply must take into account such issues as individual responsibility and competence, but need not mirror those advanced by the medical profession, such as those contained in the DSM. Pedophilia is a condition the psychiatric professional itself classifies as a serious mental disorder. Mr. Hendricks admitted that when he suffers stress, he cannot control his urge to molest children. According to Justice Thomas, the " lack of volitional control, coupled with a prediction of future dangerousness, adequately distinguishes Hendricks from other dangerous persons who are perhaps more appropriately dealt with exclusively through criminal proceedings." (Kansas v. Hendricks, supra, 521 U.S. at p. 360.) [1.D.][1.F.] The double jeopardy and ex post facto claims were predicated on the Kansas statutory scheme of the SVPA being "criminal" and creating "punishment." These claims were rejected. The Supreme Court found that where the legislature termed what it created as a "civil commitment procedure," the court would only reject that intent where there was "the clearest proof" that "the statutory scheme [is] so punitive either in purpose or effect as to negate [the State's] intention" to deem it civil. The Kansas SVPA declared itself to be civil, and the court found that Hendricks did not satisfy the burden of showing that the statutory scheme was so punitive in purpose or effect to negate the expressed statutory intent. First, the Kansas SVPA did not implicate either of the two primary objectives of criminal punishment: retribution or deterrence. Evidence of past deeds was found to have been used solely to demonstrate that a mental abnormality exists or to support a finding of future dangerousness. The evidence of past deeds was not used as a reason to again punish the subject. And the fact that a person can be civilly committed following a criminal acquittal shows, according to the court, that the state is not seeking retribution for a past misdeed. Second, the court also held the Kansas SVPA was not criminal because the statute required no finding of scienter. Scienter is an important element in distinguishing criminal from civil statutes. Third, the court found that restraint does not inexorably lead to a finding that the government has imposed punishment. An indefinite confinement possibility is not linked to intent to punish but rather to intent to hold until the mental abnormality no longer renders the subject a threat to others. Fourth, the fact that procedural safeguards are in place does not render the proceeding criminal rather than civil. Fifth, the fact that no legitimate treatment is offered does not make the statute punitive. Treatment is offered, even though it will simply rarely, if ever, be effective. For double jeopardy purposes, the court rejected the use of the multiple punishments test set forth in Blockburger v. United States (1932) 284 U.S. 299. It does not apply because this double jeopardy test is limited to successive criminal prosecutions, and this was not one for purposes of double jeopardy analysis. Finally, the effect of the act is neither punitive nor retroactive, so there is no ex post facto problem.

Justice Kennedy concurred separately. Justices Breyer, Stevens and Souter dissented, and were joined by Justice Ginsburg in the ex post facto analysis of the dissent.

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