Friday, January 29, 2010

California to Review Civil Commitment Under Equal Protection

The California Supreme Court recently raised some concerns regarding the state's sex offender civil commitment statute. Jessica's law provides for the indefinite detention of sex offenders who have completed their sentence but have been deemed sexually violent predators.

Richard McKee was convicted of lewd acts on two girls ages 11 and 8. After serving his prison sentence, a San Diego Superior Court judge committed him indefinitely to the State Department of Mental Health. He appealed alleging a violation of equal protection.

The court did not find the statute unconstitutional, but according to the Los Angles Times, remanded the case to the trial court for a fact-finding hearing to determine whether valid reasons exist to treat sex offenders differently than say mentally ill patients. California has more civilly committed offenders than any other state.

In the case of an institutionalized mentally ill patient the state reviews their detention at least every two years. A sex offender is detained indefinitely and has the burden of proving that he is no longer a danger to society. The trial court must determine if the statute violates equal protection guarantees.

The court wrote that “imposing on one group an indefinite commitment and the burden of proving they should not be committed, when the other group is subject to short-term commitment renewable only if the People prove periodically that continuing commitment is justified beyond a reasonable doubt, raises a substantial equal protection question that calls for some justification by the People.”

This raises an interesting question in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent oral argument on a challenge to the federal government's right to detain sex offenders through civil commitment.

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