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Civil Commitment Must be Challenged through Commitment Proceedings Instead of Habeas Corpus

A federal prisoner challenging his or her civil commitment detention under the Adam Walsh Act (Act) as a “sexually dangerous person” may not resort to habeas corpus for such challenges, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held on December 6, 2010. Following remand and another appeal, all challenges raised by a federal prisoner to his civil commitment proceedings were rejected.

Gerald Wayne Timms filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2241 petition challenging his continued detention three days after the U.S. government initiated civil commitment proceedings against him. Timms was finishing a 100-month federal prison sentence for receipt of child pornography when his release was stayed by the government’s civil commitment petition.

Counsel was appointed for Timms in the commitment action and his habeas case. The judge in the commitment action stayed all proceedings pending the Fourth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Comstock, which, at the time, was reviewing whether the federal civil commitment scheme was a proper exercise of Congress’ authority.

After the Fourth Circuit held in Comstock that Congress had exceeded its authority in enacting the statute (which was subsequently reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court) [See: PLN, July 2011, p.31; Dec. 2010, p.44], the judge handling Timms’ habeas petition granted habeas relief and ordered his immediate release. The government appealed.

The government argued that the district court over the habeas case should have declined to hear the habeas action because Timms was able to pursue the same claims during his civil commitment proceeding. The Fourth Circuit agreed.

“As a general rule, in the absence of ‘exceptional circumstances where the need for the remedy afforded by the writ of habeas corpus is apparent,’ courts ‘require exhaustion of alternative remedies before a prisoner can seek federal habeas relief,’” the appellate court wrote.

In Timms’ case, an alternative remedy was available – the government’s civil commitment action. As such, the Fourth Circuit concluded, it was inappropriate for the district court to have considered Timms’ challenge to his civil commitment detention via a habeas petition.

The judgment of the district court was accordingly reversed and the case remanded with instructions to dismiss Timms’ habeas petition and have him proceed with his civil commitment challenge under the provisions of the Act. See: Timms v. Johns, 627 F.3d 525 (4th Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

Following remand, on July 1, 2011 the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina held that the Act created civil rather than criminal proceedings, the Act did not require a higher burden of proof than “clear and convincing evidence,” and the Act’s definition of “sexually violent conduct” was not unconstitutionally vague. The district court further found, however, that the Act violated Timms’ equal protection and due process rights, unconstitutionally failed to require a speedy judicial hearing, and that dismissal of the civil commitment proceeding was an appropriate remedy for such violations. See: United States v. Timms, 799 F.Supp.2d 582 (E.D.N.C. 2011).

Not surprisingly, the government appealed. The government also asked the district court to stay its order that Timms be released to the custody of the U.S. Probation Office, which was denied on July 15, 2011. The district court noted that Timms “has already waited over two and a half years for a resolution of his case, and his continued incarceration is unacceptable under the laws and the constitutional protections afforded all citizens.” See: United States v. Timms, 2011 WL 2893018 (E.D.N.C. 2011).

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order in part and reversed in part on January 9, 2012. The Court of Appeals agreed that the provisions of the Act were civil rather than criminal, but found the civil commitment proceedings did not violate equal protection. Further, the appellate court held that while “troubling,” a lengthy delay between the end of a prisoner’s sentence and a hearing on the government’s petition to have him civilly committed (which was around 31 months in Timms’ case) did not violate due process. The Fourth Circuit also noted that Timms’ argument related to the burden of proof standard was foreclosed by circuit precedent.

Accordingly, the case was again remanded to the district court, to make a determination as to whether Timms “satisfies the criteria for commitment as a ‘sexually dangerous person.’” See: United States v. Timms, 664 F.3d 436 (4th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal cases

United States v. Timms

United States v. Timms

United States v. Timms

Timms v. Johns