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New York High Court Invokes Due Process Rights for Civil Commitment of Alleged Sexual Predators

The New York Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by the Appellate Division that had permitted sex offenders nearing the end of their criminal sentences to be summarily transferred to mental health facilities (e,g., civil commitment centers) without hearings. This was the second such ruling by the state?s highest court within a year; between the rulings, the New York Legislature filled the statutory void with new civil commitment hearing procedures.

Stephen Harkavy, Deputy Director of Mental Health Hygiene Legal Services, petitioned on behalf of dozens of New York state prisoners who had been involuntarily transferred to state mental health facilities at the end of their prison terms for sex offenses. They were placed either in high-security or low-security facilities without regard to their propensity for dangerousness, solely on a space-available basis.

The civil commitments were ordered by New York prison officials under pressure from former Governor George Pataki, who was determined to keep sex offenders confined after they finished their sentences even if the law had to be manipulated to do so. New York Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline W. Silberman stated Pataki?s actions were equivalent to an ?executive fiat.? [See: PLN, Mar. 2006, p.22]. The Appellate Division disagreed, and overturned her ruling in favor of the prisoner petitioners.

In State of N.Y. ex rel. Harkavy v. Consilvio, 7 N.Y.3d 607 (N.Y. 2006) [Harkavy I], the Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the state had improperly used Article 9 of the Mental Hygiene Law to transfer prisoners directly (as an ?emergency?) from prison to mental health facility confinement. Rather, the state should have used Corrections Law § 402, which provides an orderly procedure for retention of mentally ill or sexually dangerous prisoners.

The Article 9 civil commitment procedure used by the New York prison system simply involved having some mental health professionals opine that a prisoner had diagnosed mental problems plus a predilection for sex crimes. The prisoner was then automatically consigned to civil incarceration. The Court of Appeals held in Harkavy I that such prisoners were entitled to the due process provisions of § 402 and reversed the Appellate Division.
Sensing the tension between § 402 and Article 9, the New York Legislature enacted Article 10, which set forth formal mental health department determinations of the need for civil commitment, with commensurate due process protections of notice, counsel and a trial by jury.

Nonetheless, Harkavy found it necessary to go to court again to protect the rights of another ten incarcerated sex offenders who found themselves in the civil commitment rush-to-judgment by prison officials. In its second ruling in June 2007, the Court of Appeals recognized the intervening legislative statutory changes and applied them to the plight of the ten prisoners who sought habeas relief. First, the Court found they had been improperly committed under Article 9, since Article 10 now controlled. Second, it found that the prisoners? complaint of having been arbitrarily placed in high-security facilities when such placements were not justified was rendered moot by Article 10?s express definition of which types of civil commitments qualified for higher-security treatment.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals again reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the petitioners? cases back to the trial courts for civil commitment proceedings consistent with Article 10. See: State of New York ex rel. Stephen J. Harkavy on behalf of John Doe Nos. 13 through 22 v. Eileen Consilvio, 8 N.Y.3d 645, 870 N.E.2d 128 (N.Y. 2007).

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Related legal cases

State of New York ex rel. Stephen J. Harkavy on behalf of John Doe Nos. 13 through 22 v. Eileen Consilvio

In State of N.Y. ex rel. Harkavy v. Consilvio