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British Court Blocks Sex Offender’s Extradition to U.S. Due to “Draconian” Civil Commitment Policies

In June 2012, Britain’s High Court of Justice blocked the extradition of a defendant wanted in Minnesota for sex crimes, stating a “flagrant denial” of his human rights would result if he were subjected to civil commitment under U.S. law.

Shawn Sullivan, 43, a dual U.S.-Irish citizen, is wanted for indecent assault of two 11-year-old girls; he also allegedly had unlawful sex with a 14-year-old girl. The crimes occurred between 1993 and 1994. Shortly after being questioned about the indecent assaults, Sullivan fled the United States and traveled to the UK. He wasn’t arrested on the charges until June 28, 2010.

The U.S. requested Sullivan’s extradition and a lower British court found there was “no question” that he should be returned to face prosecution. On appeal, the only issue was whether Sullivan’s extradition would be incompatible with Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights or breach the rule against specialty (which provides that a person who is extradited may only be prosecuted for the crimes specified in the extradition request).

Although civil commitment is a process available in 20 states, including Minnesota, it is unknown in European justice systems. “Minnesota’s law is said to be more draconian than many others,” the High Court wrote. It relied heavily on the testimony of William Mitchell College of Law Dean Eric Janus, who has considerable experience with persons subject to civil commitment in Minnesota – mostly sex offenders. [See, e.g., PLN, Oct. 2013, p.38; Sept. 2013, p.48].

The High Court said it would be “most unfortunate from the point of view of the victims and of justice” should Sullivan escape trial in the U.S. due to his risk of being subject to civil commitment following his extradition.

The evidence showed that of the more than 600 offenders civilly committed in Minnesota, none has been permanently released since the program went into effect in 1994. Only one offender has received a provisional discharge from the state’s civil commitment program – Clarence Opheim, 64, who was released to a halfway house in March 2012.

The issue before the High Court centered on whether an order for civil commitment constituted “lawful detention” for a person of unsound mind. Looking to the foreseeable consequences of extradition, the Court concluded that Sullivan would be subject to civil commitment should he be returned to Minnesota.

That consequence would be realized if Sullivan was found to have a sexual disorder or dysfunction under the state’s civil commitment law. “Since it is not necessary to prove that amounts to an inability to control his sexual impulses, it is plain that the criteria fall far short of proving he is of unsound mind,” the High Court wrote.

The Court further observed that should Sullivan face civil commitment, his 1996 suspended jail sentence for indecent assaults on two 12-year-old girls in Ireland would be admissible. The Court found that under Minnesota’s civil commitment statute, there is “no requirement that the offences took place recently, nor, indeed, that the misconduct resulted in conviction, provided that the misconduct is substantiated by credible evidence” rather than a higher standard of proof.

While the High Court said it was “plainly in the interests of justice” that Sullivan face trial on the sex charges in Minnesota, it held the risk of civil commitment would be a “flagrant denial” of his rights under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Accordingly, U.S. officials were given one week to guarantee that Sullivan would not face civil commitment should he be returned to Minnesota; no such assurance was made, however, and the extradition proceeding was dropped.

Sullivan thus remains free in the UK, but faces prosecution and possibly civil commitment should he ever return to the United States or travel to any other country willing to extradite him. See: Sullivan v. Government of the United States, High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, 2012 EWHC 1680 (June 6, 2012).

“The European courts are starting to view U.S. courts as being so draconian that it violates human rights,” former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer was quoted as saying in a January 14, 2013 news article. “They’ve always felt this way pertaining to death penalty cases, but now we are seeing it more in fraud and sexual abuse cases.”

There are presently 698 offenders civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. A state task force has been considering changes to the state’s civil commitment process, including a central state court that will decide how offenders are selected for commitment and when they are released. Additionally, a higher standard of proof – beyond a reasonable doubt – has been proposed before offenders can be civilly committed, as well as “regular periodic reviews” of civil commitment cases.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say the [program] is a de-facto life sentence,” noted Eric Janus, who serves on the task force. “What we’re saying is, before we spend a huge amount of money to lock people up, we better be really sure that these people need this super level of protection.”

Minnesota is currently facing a class-action federal lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the state’s civil commitment statute, including the indefinite detention of committed offenders. See: Karsjens v. Minnesota Department of Human Services, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:11-cv-03659-DWF-JJK.

Sources: Fox News, www.telegraph.co.uk, Star Tribune, www.dailymail.co.uk