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Eighth Circuit Vacates District Court Commitment Order Issued Without a Hearing

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has granted the interlocutory appeal of Fred Neal, Jr., attacking the district court's discretion to order a commitment to conduct a competency evaluation, on Due Process grounds. It, ruled that a "district court was required to make findings regarding the need to detain a defendant on pretrial release," who had been charged with interference with the internal revenue laws and slander of title.

Defendant Neal and his wife Doris, seventy-nine and eighty-two years old, respectively, had been charged with violations of 26 U.S.C. Section 7212(a), 18 U.S.C. Section 2, and 18 U.S.C. Section 1521. Neal had already appeared for arraignment, been appointed counsel, and released on bond on the condition that he not file any additional IRS forms or institute any new civil court action without approval of the district court. According to the court, Neal's wife "relies upon her husband as a caretaker to run the household." Neal had no criminal history, "had been reporting to his pretrial officer... (and was not) a flight risk."

As a result of Neal's filing of court papers in contravention of his conditions of release, the government moved for a competency evaluation pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 4241(a) and (b) as an inpatient. Defense counsel opposed this request, because it meant that Neal would be away from his wife for a period of up to forty-five days, whereas an outpatient evaluation would mean he would still be able to look after his wife.

The Appeals Court stated that, "Commitment for any purpose constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty that requires due process protection," Revels v. Sanders, 519 F.3d 734, 740 (8th Cir. 2008). The government argued that the district court had discretion , under 18 U.S.C. Section 4247(b) to "commit(a) person to be examined for a reasonable period," but the court noted that "the statute does not grant a district court unfettered discretion to order such a commitment." but must follow "due process requirements." U.S. v. Deters, 143 F.3d 577, 582-84 (10th Cir. 1998) In re Newchurch, 807 F. 2d 404, 409, (5th Cir. 1986), also said that the statute "must be read against the background of the constitutional protection for individual liberty."

In this case, the court further noted, the "government offered no evidence to establish the presence of compelling governmental interests which would require Neal's competency evaluation to be conducted pursuant to a custodial commitment at a Bureau of Prisons facility, rather than on an outpatient basis."

In the Deters case, the district court did hold an evidentiary hearing, which noted defendant's request that she be evaluated on an outpatient basis, and then made factual findings that she was a flight risk and had unstable living conditions before ordering her commitment for testing.

In the instant case, however, the district court failed to conduct a hearing, did not present evidence to support their position, and did not seriously consider defendant's request for outpatient testing, and (failed to) "make findings (of fact) for us to review... we are unable to determine whether the district court's order complies with due process requirements by fettering Neal's freedom in the least restrictive manner," as required by the federal Bail Reform Act.

In conclusion, the court vacated the commitment order, and remanded the case for further proceedings, which presumably would include an evidentiary hearing. See: United States v. Neal, 679 F.3d 737 (8th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

United States v. Neal