Just about anyone who was a student at Carolina in 1995 remembers where they were on January 26 of that year when they heard that a gunman carrying a World-War-II-era rifle had opened fire on passersby as he walked down Henderson Street shortly after lunchtime. The shooter was Wendell Williamson, a third-year student at UNC law. He shot and killed two people that afternoon: Ralph Walker, Jr., a 42-year-old Chapel Hill resident, and twenty-year-old Kevin Reichardt, who was a sophomore at UNC and a member of the university’s lacrosse team. Williamson, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was tried for murder. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. What happened next for Williamson is what happens to all criminal defendants acquitted by reason of insanity. He was involuntarily committed to a state mental health hospital, where he will remain until he can demonstrate that he (1) no longer has a mental illness or (2) is no longer dangerous to others. Are defendants like Williamson who are charged with homicide and found not guilty by reason of insanity ever released from state hospitalization?
Tag Archives: civil commitment
Jamie mentioned yesterday that the Supreme Court decided two important cases this week. Graham v. Florida, which Jamie covered yesterday, is the blockbuster, but United States v. Comstock is also worth discussing briefly. As I mentioned in a prior post, the issue in Comstock was the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 4248. That statute allows the “Attorney General or . . . the Director of the Bureau of Prisons [to] certify that [a federal prisoner] is a sexually dangerous person.” Such certification “shall stay the release of the person,” even if the person’s sentence has expired, pending a hearing. If, “after the hearing, the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the person is a sexually dangerous person, the court shall commit the person to the custody of the Attorney General.” The Attorney General must attempt to get the person’s home state to “assume responsibility for his custody, care, and treatment,” but if the state will not do so, the federal authorities “shall place the person for treatment in a suitable facility” until the person is no longer sexually dangerous. In a nutshell, the statute provides for the civil commitment of sexually dangerous criminals after their federal sentences expire. There’s a local angle here, because individuals who are alleged to be sexually dangerous are typically evaluated at the federal prison complex in Butner, and their cases are typically heard by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
On behalf of several sexually dangerous persons, an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Raleigh challenged the statute, arguing inter alia that the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to run such a civil commitment program. The government responded that the program was part of running a responsible prison system, and so was authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “make all [l]aws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into [e]xecution” Congress’s other powers — in this case, the power to create and administer a criminal justice system.
Although the AFPD won in the district court and in the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute was within Congress’s power. Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court based this conclusion on:
(1) the breadth of the Necessary and Proper Clause, (2) the long history of federal involvement in this arena, (3) the sound reasons for the statute’s enactment in light of the Government’s custodial interest in safeguarding the public from dangers posed by those in federal custody, (4) the statute’s accommodation of state interests, and (5) the statute’s narrow scope.
Although some have criticized the Court for its expansive interpretation of Congress’s powers, any federalism concerns may be softened by the fact that 29 states appeared as amici in support of the statute, apparently in part because it effectively allows the states to transfer the responsibility — and the expense — of dealing with some sexually dangerous convicts to the federal government.
Of course, the vast majority of sex offenders are convicted in state court, not federal court, meaning that section 4248 has no application to them. And we already knew that states have the authority to establish civil commitment programs for sexually dangerous criminals. Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997) (rejecting due process, ex post facto, and double jeopardy arguments against Kansas’s statute). Indeed, according to this Congressional Research Service Report, as of 2007, “19 states [had] sexual predator civil commitment laws.” Notably, North Carolina is not among them, though the regular involuntary commitment statutes in Article 5 of Chapter 122C of the General Statutes allow the commitment of persons who are mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others, standards that some sex offenders may meet. (Note that section 4248 doesn’t require a showing of mental illness, which to my mind raises some due process concerns. How broad is the state’s power to commit people simply because they are likely to commit crimes in the future? But that’s a topic for another day.) Further, sex offenders who are released from prison are subject to sex offender registration and monitoring. I’m not sure that a specific civil commitment statute for sexually dangerous people would add much to those existing tools. Anyone disagree?
There have been several interesting criminal law new stories this week. I want to focus mainly on one with a local connection, but I’ll note briefly this New York Times article that describes some research suggesting that probation and parole violations should be more frequent, more immediate, and less harsh; this Wired magazine article that discusses whether and when a court may include a ban on computer use or internet access as part of a defendant’s sentence; and this new decision by (a conservative panel of) the Ninth Circuit, holding that police officers may be subject to civil liability if they refuse “to investigate a crime or make an arrest due to the race of the victim.”
I want to give a little extra attention, though, to United States v. Comstock, argued this Tuesday before the United States Supreme Court. The question presented in Comstock is:
Whether Congress had the constitutional authority to enact 18 U.S.C. 4248, which authorizes court-ordered civil commitment by the federal government of (1) “sexually dangerous” persons who are already in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, but who are coming to the end of their federal prison sentences, and (2) “sexually dangerous” persons who are in the custody of the Attorney General because they have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
I’m oversimplifying, but basically, the federal government has a program under which sex offenders who are about to finish their federal prison sentences are evaluated to see if they are mentally ill and sexually dangerous. If so, they may be indefinitely civilly committed — at the federal prison complex in Butner. Assistant Federal Public Defender Jane Pearce argued that the federal government lacks the power to run this sort of civil commitment system, which, in her view, has traditionally been the province of the states. The detainees won in federal district court, then again in the Fourth Circuit, United States v. Comstock, 551 F.3d 274 (2009) (holding that the program neither falls within Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause, nor is a “necessary and proper” incident to the federal criminal justice system).
You can read the oral argument here. Solicitor General Kagan was incredibly poised and polished, and Assistant Federal Public Defender Alan DuBois also acquitted himself well. Most of the pundits, talking heads, and prognosticators predict a reversal — one example, plus extensive coverage of the case, is here — and I suppose that’s my guess, too, for what it’s worth.
What’s the impact on North Carolina? Well, the News and Observer notes here that North Carolina doesn’t have a sex-offender-specific civil commitment law, though one’s been proposed from time to time. The suggestion is that if the detainees win Comstock, we’ll be stuck with some of these folks, without the proper tools to deal with them. I wonder about that. My sense is that in recent years, defense lawyers — including me, when I was doing that work — have increasingly argued that mental illness is a contributing factor in their clients’ crimes. Sometimes mental illness forms the basis of a defense, such as insanity, but more frequently it is advanced as a mitigating factor for sentencing. This trend towards the medicalization of criminal behavior may (or may not) be scientifically sound, and it may be helpful to defendants in some criminal cases. But it also seems to increase the possibility that defendants — and not just sex offenders — may be subject to civil commitment under general civil commitment laws, which allow the commitment of those who are mentally ill and dangerous to (themselves or) others. I suspect we’ll see a lot of action in this area in the aftermath of Comstock, and I’m interested in others’ thoughts about this.