Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Sexual Predators’ Suit Alleging Unconstitutional Civil Confinement Conditions Survives Dismissal

California Sexual Predators' Suit Alleging Unconstitutional Civil Confinement Conditions Survives Dismissal

by John E. Dannenberg

A class of 600 civilly committed sexually violent predators (SVP) sued the California Department of Mental Health (DMH) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, complaining of a litany of unconstitutional conditions of confinement. When the state defendants moved to dismiss, principally on qualified immunity grounds, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals largely sustained the district court's denial of the motion in an instructive opinion that, at the very least, fixed civilly committed SVPs? rights at no less than those of criminally committed prisoners.

James Hydrick and 29 other named SVP plaintiffs confined at the DMH's Atascadero State Hospital (ASH) attacked their confinement conditions in a sweeping civil rights complaint filed in U.S. District Court (C.D. Cal.) in 1998. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well as damages. Having been civilly committed to "cure" their dangerous sexual predilections, they were subject to a multi-year five-phase treatment program to earn their eventual release. The program was so arduous, however, that most SVPs refused it in hopes that a jury will release them at a future biennial recommitment hearing. (See: PLN, November, 2006, How to Exit California's Sexual Predator Prison: Refuse Treatment). Their lawsuit attacked the conditions of confinement while either undergoing treatment or biding their time until the next jury determination.

Plaintiffs complained that ASH force-medicated them in non-emergency situations; reduced their access and privilege levels to punish them for refusing treatment and in retaliation for filing lawsuits; put them in restraints for non-threatening conduct; subjected them to public strip-searches; failed to protect SVPs at ASH from abuse of other (mental) patients confined there; housed them in squalid conditions; and forced them to participate in treatment (while denying adequate treatment), thus converting their civil commitment into an extension of their expired criminal sentences.

The principal defense advanced was that of qualified immunity. Here, at the pre-discovery stage, although there was precious little factual record from which to make a ruling, the appeals court addressed each enumerated complaint to review the district court's denial of dismissal. First, it was conceded that claims against state actors for declaratory and injunctive relief are not protected by the Eleventh Amendment. However, monetary damage claims survive Eleventh Amendment immunity only if they are directed against state defendants in their personal capacity. Hence, the class could sue accordingly. Parsing the named defendants' actions as either individual acts or policy, the Ninth Circuit concluded that plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged defendants' role in the purported constitutional violations to survive a motion to dismiss.

To reach further conclusions on qualified immunity, the appeals court first addressed the evolving question as to whether it was established by precedent that SVPs enjoy at least the same constitutional confinement protections as do incarcerated. prisoners. Relying on Prison Legal News v. Lehman, 397 F. 3d 692, 701 (9th Cir. 2005), the court noted that it could look outside the circuit where no in-circuit precedent controlled, to determine a "trend in case law." First, the court looked at the sub-class of all civilly committed detainees and determined that it did not follow that rights of SVPs were necessarily coextensive with those of other civil detainees. But in examining each of the complaints of privilege reduction, harassment by ASH personnel, retaliation for filing legal actions, excessive property searches and seizures, and denial of access to the law library, the court concluded, on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, that this behavior was so well developed in case law for prisoners that no reasonable DMH defendant could have reasonably believed that he could similarly mistreat SVPs.

The Ninth Circuit noted that there may even be a First Amendment right not to participate in treatment, based upon language in California's SVP Act. That is, if one participates, he must sign a statement saying he is sick and needs treatment to be released, but if he refuses to sign his refusal will be used as evidence against his release in any future biennial recommitment hearing. However, because case law precedent was still "volatile," the appellate court restricted plaintiffs' complaint on these express issues to declaratory and injunctive relief, granting the defendants qualified immunity against monetary damages.

As to plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim against unreasonable searches and the use of force, the appeals court held that because this protection "extends to incarcerated prisoners," it "certainly extends to SVPs." And since the protection for prisoners was well settled, qualified immunity would therefore not protect defendants here against the SVP's claims.

Double Jeopardy and Ex Post Facto claims were determined to be foreclosed by the California Supreme Court's holding in Hubbart v. Superior Ct., 19 Cal. 4th 1138, 1171 (1999). Similarly, the Ninth Circuit found that plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims were foreclosed by Seling v. Young, 531 U.S. 250, 267 (2001). But the court declared this a "small victory for Defendants," noting that the same concerns could be attacked via Fourteenth Amendment due process claims.

In this regard, the appellate court found that a claim was stated under procedural due process rights for deprivations taken without adequate notice of or opportunity to respond to accusations of alleged sanctionable conduct. Specifically, the court held that SVPs were protected under the Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process clause. This included challenges to involuntary medication of psychotropic drugs. Plaintiffs fared equally well as to their substantive due process claims, including unsanitary conditions and abuses by other DMH patients and by DMH staff (e.g., being targeted because they were sex offenders). For such abuses, the Ninth Circuit held that qualified immunity would "not be appropriate." "The Fourteenth Amendment requires that civilly committed persons not be subjected to conditions that amount to punishment. ... It is clearly established that substantive due process protections of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to SVPs." And surely, the court observed, conduct that sinks below those protections afforded prisoners under the Eighth Amendment plainly supports a claim of violation of rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Equal protection claims as to being hired for institutional jobs was left to the district court to resolve, including determination of whether "heightened scrutiny" principles should attach. The right to counsel (Sixth Amendment) and access to the courts (Fourteenth Amendment) claims that related to the denial of private communications with attorneys and to law library access were found protectable, and hence not subject to dismissal. Similarly, the right to privacy (public strip searches) survived dismissal.

Finally, the appeals court rejected defendants' argument that their "reasonable but mistaken" belief of the constitutionality of their conduct would save them. "We do not adhere to the theory that 'every dog is entitled to one bite.'" Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court in large part. Readers should note that this is not a ruling on the merits of the SVPs' claims, but permits such claims to be factually developed and submitted to a trier of fact. See: Hydrick v. Hunter, 449 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2006). The Ninth Circuit subsequently filed an amended opinion with an amended concurrence/dissent; however, the substance of the ruling was not altered. See: Hydrick v. Hunter, 466 F.3d 676 (9th Cir. 2006).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Hydrick v. Hunter