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First Circuit Reverses Finding that Sexual Interest in Adolescents Not Disorder Warranting Civil Commitment

On June 4, 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro ordered the release of a federal prisoner the government had sought to civilly commit as a sexually dangerous person. In ordering the release, Judge Tauro concluded that the government had failed to show that the prisoner suffered from a “serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder” that justified civil commitment.

The Adam Walsh Act, enacted by Congress in 2006, permits the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons. Sexual dangerousness is demonstrated upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence that the person “suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder as a result of which he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” 18 U.S.C. § 4247(a)(5)-(6).

On March 9, 2007, the federal government instituted civil commitment proceedings against Todd Carta. Carta was incarcerated for his first sex offense but had a long history of sexual contact with minors. The government sought certification of Carta as a sexually dangerous person on the basis that he suffered from “hebephilia,” which, according to the Bureau of Prisons doctor who diagnosed him, is a sexual preference for “young teens” until “about age seventeen.”

After hearing expert testimony from both sides, the district court declined to certify Carta as “sexually dangerous.” The primary problem with the government’s case, Judge Tauro explained, was with its reliance on the “hebephilia” diagnosis to support its petition for civil commitment.

Hebephilia, despite the government’s contentions, was not a valid “mental illness, abnormality, or disorder,” the district court concluded. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted that hebephilia is not listed in the DSM-IV, the “classification manual that contains all of the known research on mental disorders.”

Additionally, the court decided that hebephilia was not a reliable diagnosis because the purported disorder does not have any consistent criteria. Some doctors, for example, consider sexual interest in adolescents as indicative of hebephilia, whereas others consider only a “sexual preference” for adolescents as qualifying behavior. “Lack of any clear criteria,” the court wrote, “demonstrates that hebephilia is not a workable diagnosis.”

The district court concluded that hebephilia was also not supported by research. While some peer-reviewed studies lend support to a diagnosis of hebephilia, such research is extremely limited, rendering the diagnosis “scientifically problematic.”

Because the government failed to show that Carta’s “sexual interest in pubescent and post-pubescent adolescents qualifies as a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder,” the government’s motion seeking civil commitment of Carta as a “sexually dangerous person” was denied and Carta was ordered released from BOP custody. See: United States v. Carta, 620 F.Supp.2d 210 (D. Mass. 2009).

The BOP appealed, and Carta’s release was stayed. On January 15, 2010, the First Circuit reversed the district court. The appellate court noted that Carta had “described his primary sexual interest as children age 12 to 17 and his secondary interest as children age 7 to 11, and admitted to having a large child pornography collection; he usually stored between 10,000 and 20,000 images on his computer and spent 12 to 14 hours daily looking at child pornography prior to his arrest.” The Court of Appeals also detailed Carta’s lengthy history of sexually abusing children.

When Carta was diagnosed by the government’s expert, he was diagnosed with “‘paraphilia not otherwise specified’ that was characterized by ‘hebephilia.’” Paraphilia is included in the DSM IV, and his condition was described as “paraphilia not otherwise specified because hebephilia ... is not itself an abnormality specifically listed in the DSM nor is it one of the specific examples of paraphilia listed in the DSM. By contrast, pedophilia, sexual attraction to children before puberty, is a listed variety of paraphilia in the DSM.”

The First Circuit found that under the Adam Walsh Act, a “mental disorder or defect need not necessarily be one so identified in the DSM in order to meet the statutory requirement.” Since Carta was diagnosed with “paraphilia not otherwise specified,” that diagnosis met the requirements of the Act even if hebephilia was not expressly included in the DSM IV.

The appellate court also upheld the district court’s finding that Congress did not exceed its authority when passing the Adam Walsh Act, rejecting Carta’s constitutional and due process challenges to the Act. See: United States v. Carta, 592 F.3d 34 (1st Cir. 2010).

A bench trial was held following remand, and the district court’s decision as to whether Carta will be civilly committed remains pending.

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Related legal cases

United States v. Carta

United States v. Carta