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Florida: For Sentence Calculation Purposes, Civil Commitment Detention Same as Jail Confinement

Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal has held that there is no meaningful distinction between incarceration in prison or jail and confinement in a sex offender civil commitment facility for the purposes of sentence calculation.

The Court’s ruling came in a Fla.R.Crim.P. 3.800(a) proceeding involving Florida state prisoner William J. Sutton, which was dismissed by the trial court. After Sutton had fulfilled his fifteen-year prison sentence (including gain time awards), he was released under Florida’s Conditional Release Program Act (CRPA), which requires prisoners to remain under supervision of the Florida Parole Commission for a period of time equal to their gain time.

Upon his release Sutton was transferred to Florida’s civil commitment center for sex offenders, to await a trial where a jury would determine whether he qualified for indefinite commitment under the Jimmy Ryce Act (JRA). Under the JRA, a jury must decide if a prisoner is likely to commit new sex offenses, resulting in indefinite civil commitment upon such a finding.

Thus, upon completion of a prison sentence, prisoners who are deemed to qualify under the JRA pass from criminal to civil confinement. If the jury finds the prisoner is not likely to commit new sex offenses, he is released. Sutton sat in the civil commitment center for four years awaiting trial; in June 2004, the State Attorney dropped the JRA case against him.

Rather than being released, however, Sutton was transferred back to prison without credit for his time in JRA custody applied against his sentence. Additionally, the Parole Commission revoked Sutton’s CRPA, causing loss of all his accrued gain time, because he refused to participate (on the advice of counsel) in sex offender treatment while at the civil commitment facility, and had refused to submit to a drug test ordered by his supervising officer.

The Court of Appeal noted that Sutton did not in any way appeal or challenge the Parole Commission’s revocation or the failure by prison officials to credit the time he spent in JRA custody. Rather, he was challenging the manner in which his 15-year term was being calculated or administered. As Rule 3.800(a) is the remedy to correct illegal sentences, it could not be used for this purpose. Nonetheless, the Court elected “to address the issue and say what the law is.”

The appellate court found that Mason v. State, 515 So.2d 738 (Fla. 1987) holds “there is no meaningful distinction ... between incarceration before trial in a county jail, and state enforced confinement in a mental hospital in preparation for trial,” requiring the time served in either case under those circumstances to be credited against a prison sentence.

The JRA was not intended to extend or enlarge a criminal penalty, the Fourth District found. The Court further agreed with David v. Meadows, 881 So.2d 653 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004), which held that “in the event that Meadows is found unable to comply with his release program because of his civil confinement, he should not be found in violation and should receive credit for the time during commitment.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeal found that Sutton was entitled to have his time in JRA confinement credited against his prison sentence. However, the Court did not grant habeas corpus relief, as it expected the relevant state agencies to comply with its findings when Sutton’s sentence expired “day for day” within two weeks of the Court’s ruling. See: Sutton v. Florida Parole Commission, 975 So.2d 1256 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 4th Dist. 2008), rehearing denied, review denied.

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Related legal case

Sutton v. Florida Parole Commission