Does a 15-year delay in bringing a defendant to trial under the Sexually Violent Predator Act (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 6600 et. seq) constitute a due process violation?
The Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVP Act; Welf. & Inst. Code, § 6600 et seq.) authorizes the involuntary commitment of certain convicted sex offenders — termed “sexually violent predators,” or SVPs — who are found to have mental disorders that make them likely to reoffend after release from prison. This case concerns delays in holding trial on a petition for SVP commitment.
Petitioner Ciro Camacho was first determined to be an SVP at a 2005 trial and was committed to the state hospital for a two-year term under the version of the statute then in force. The next year, the statute was amended to provide for indefinite commitment instead of renewable two-year terms. In 2007, before Camacho’s two-year term ended, the state filed a recommitment petition seeking indefinite commitment under the new version of the statute. Since then, the defense has repeatedly requested or agreed to continuances of the trial date, with the result that the trial on the recommitment petition has yet to occur. Camacho now argues that the extended pretrial delay violates his constitutional rights.
Although the Courts of Appeal have previously addressed similar claims, this case marks the first time this court has considered the constitutional framework for evaluating the timeliness of SVP trials. We now hold that persons facing SVP commitment have a due process right to a timely trial. But as is true in other contexts, whether pretrial delay violates that right depends in the first instance on the reasons for the delay. (Barker v. Wingo (1972) 407 U.S. 514, 531.) Here, while the decade-plus delay in holding Camacho’s recommitment trial is extraordinarily lengthy, the available record shows that responsibility for the delay lies primarily with the defense, which either sought or agreed to the continuances that led to the delay. While many of the continuance requests were made by Camacho’s counsel when Camacho was not personally present in court, the ordinary rule is that delays sought by counsel are attributable to their clients (Vermont v. Brillon (2009) 556 U.S. 81, 85), and the record reveals no basis to depart from that rule in this case. Camacho therefore has not established that the pretrial delay in this case resulted in a violation of his due process rights.
Although we find no due process violation in the case before us, we underscore the vital role of trial courts in safeguarding the timely trial right of alleged SVPs. Involuntary commitment entails “a massive curtailment of liberty.” (Humphrey v. Cady (1972) 405 U.S. 504, 509.) In the context of SVP proceedings, the deprivation of liberty begins when a court finds probable cause to hold an alleged SVP in state custody pending trial. In making determinations that will affect when trial is held, the trial court must take due account of the individual’s interests in prompt adjudication and take decisive steps to guard against unjustified delay.
This case was decided on 8/31/2023. Justice Kruger authored the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice Guerrero and Justices Corrigan, Liu, Groban, Jenkins, and Evans concurred.
Review on this issue was also granted with briefing deferred in:
- People v. Ballardo (B290567) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 6/29/2022 (S274469)
- Johnson v. Superior Court (B319328) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 7/13/2022 (S274569)
- People v. Sipe (A163611) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 3/15/2023 (S278255)
- People v. Hubbs (D077636) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 4/19/2023 (S278810)
- In re Kerins (2023) 89 Cal.App.5th 1084, review granted 6/14/2023 (S279933/A165304)
- People v. Howard (H047743) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 8/23/2023 (S281144)