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California: Indefinite Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators May Violate Equal Protection

In a January 28, 2010 ruling, the California Supreme Court held that Prop. 83, a November 2006 ballot initiative also known as Jessica’s Law, may violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection by subjecting sexually violent predators (SVPs), but not other eligible ex-felons, to indefinite post-incarceration civil commitment. The 5-2 ruling did not invalidate Jessica’s Law, but instead remanded the case to the trial court to give the state an opportunity to present facts to justify its differential treatment of SVPs.

Prop. 83 authorized the civil commitment of people adjudicated to be SVPs for an indefinite period of time, where formerly the law permitted commitment for only a two-year term, subject to applications for two-year extensions. Under Prop. 83, a per-son’s SVP status must be reviewed annually by the Department of Mental Health (DMH), which can authorize a petition for re-lease. An adverse finding by the DMH does not preclude the possibility of filing a petition for release, but in such cases the peti-tioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she no longer qualifies for commitment as an SVP (i.e., is no longer both mentally ill and dangerous).

Critical to the California Supreme Court’s analysis was the fact that, by contrast with the treatment of SVPs under Prop. 83, a Mentally Disordered Offender (MDO) is civilly committed for one-year periods and thereafter has the right to be re-leased unless the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she still qualifies for civil commitment as an MDO. The Court held that “imposing on one group an indefinite commitment and the burden of proving they should not be commit-ted, 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 sane justifica-tion by the People.” See: People v. McKee, 47 Cal.4th 1172, 223 P.3d 566 (Cal. 2010), rehearing denied.

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Related legal case

People v. McKee