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New York Sex Offender Commitment Proceedings Permitted against Unlawfully Detained

New York’s highest court held that the legality of a prisoner’s custody is irrelevant in ascertaining whether he or she is a “detained sex offender” in considering involuntary commitment of a prisoner under Article 10 of the Mental Hygiene Law.

That ruling came in cases involving two men convicted of serious sex crimes. Upon finishing their prison sentences, they entered a psychiatric hospital; one voluntarily, the other involuntarily. Neither was sentenced to post release supervision (PRS) by the sentencing court, but the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) improperly added PRS to their sentences without court authorization.

While at the psychiatric hospital, both men violated the terms of their PRS. One tried to escape and the other assaulted a fellow patient. Both returned to prison. Subsequently, the Court held in a separate case the PRS terms were unlawful.

Faced with the prospect the two men might be released, the State began Article 10 proceedings to have the men found “sex offender[s] requiring civil management.” Ultimately, a New York Supreme Court found the men were not “detained sex offenders” under article 10 because their PRS terms, and the resultant imprisonment from PRS violations, were unlawful.

On appeal, there was no dispute that to be subject to Article 10 proceedings, the men had to be “detained sex offender[s].” The Court found they clearly fit the definition in the law, for they were both admitted to a hospital operated by the Office of Mental Health upon release from prison and were in DOC’s custody when the Article 10 proceedings began.

At issue was the decision in State of New York ex rel. Harkavy v. Consilvio, 7 NY 3d 607 (2006), which held the state must utilize Correction Law § 402 rather than article 9 of the Mental Hygiene Law to involuntarily admit mentally ill prisoners to care and treatment.

“Evidently believing that Section 402 procedures were inadequate to protect the public, the Legislature responded to Harkavy I by enacting Article 10, a statute specifically designed to deal with sex offenders who are completing their prison terms,” wrote the Court. It found the law makes “no distinction between those properly and improperly confined,” so “there is no reason why people whose confinement violated the law should not have been treated the same way as other inmates.”

The Court, based upon that logic, held that as Article 10 “can be validly applied to lawfully detained prisoners, it can be applied with equal validity to those whose imprisonment resulted from a procedural error.” The court ordered the men’s petitions challenging the Article 10 proceedings be dismissed. See: People ex rel. Joseph II v. Superintendent of Southport Correctional Facility, 15 N.Y.3d 847 (2010).

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Related legal case

People ex rel. Joseph II v. Superintendent of Southport Correctional Facility