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Washington State’s 2005 Sexual Predator Amendment Not Retroactive

By David Reutter

Washington State’s Supreme Court has held the 2005 amendment to the state’s sexually violent predator act (SVPA) does not apply retroactively. The Court also held a trial court may not weigh evidence at a show of cause hearing when determining whether probable cause exists to hold a full probable cause trial is required to further detain the prisoner as a civilly committed detainee.

Before the Supreme Court were the cross appeals of the state and SVPA detainee Keith W. Elmore, who was civilly committed in 2001. While committed under SVPA, a detainee may petition the court for conditional release to a less restrictive alternative or unconditional discharge.

After Elmore filed his petition, a show cause hearing was held. The Clark County Superior Court held a limited hearing was necessary to determine whether Elmore’s advanced age constituted a change establishing probable cause sufficient to show he was no longer an SVP. The Court further held the state’s evidence established primia facie evidence that Elmore is an SVP, rejecting his experts position, which did not require a hearing. The court of Appeals reversed the hearing on age.

The Supreme Court granted review on two questions. The first concerned the retroactive application of the 2005 amendment to the SVPA law. That amendment found the decision by the Court of Appeals that “age is an important factor in determining risk of reoffense” held by In Re Detention of Young, 120 Wn. 753, 86 P.3d 810 (2004) is contrary to legislative intent. Under the amendment, “mere advance in age… does not merit a new trial proceeding.”

Retroactive application applies only where (1) the legislative intended to apply the amendment retroactively; (2) The amendment is curative and “clarifies or technically corrects ambiguous statutory language”; (3) The amendment is remedial in nature. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals' holding that the amendment clarified the earlier version, holding the amendment expressly changed the holding In Young. “While the amendment clarified the legislature’s intent, we may not apply the amendment retroactively because it changed prior case law,” The Court said.

The next question before the Court was whether Elmore was entitled to a full hearing on his continued commitment. It was held “that the trial court improperly weighed evidence at the show cause hearing when it concluded that [Elmore’s expert’s] opinion was insufficient because the staff at the [commitment center] are of the opposite opinion.” That evidence can only be weighed at a full hearing, as the probable cause hearing can only determine “whether the facts, if believed, establish that the person is no longer an SVP or may otherwise be conditionally released.” Elmore made such a showing.

Thus, the Court of Appeals was reversed and the matter was remanded for a full hearing. See: In Re Detention Of Elmore, 162 Wash.2d 27, 168 P.3d 1285.

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Related legal case

In Re Detention Of Elmore