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“Shocks the Conscience” Test Applied to Conditions at Civil Commitment Center

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the “shocks the conscience” standard, as opposed to the “professional judgment” standard, is the proper analysis when determining an alleged due process violation based on the treatment and discipline of a civilly committed sex offender.

Following a six-day bench trial in a federal lawsuit that resulted in judgment for the defendants, Dennis W. Strutton, a civilly committed resident at the Missouri Sexual Offender Treatment Center (MSOTC), filed an appeal. Strutton had been housed at the MSOTC since 2002 as the result of a 1997 guilty plea to first-degree child molestation, which included a stipulation that he be defined as a “sexually violent predator.”

Strutton’s lawsuit included substantive due process claims for failure to provide him with consistent access to adequate mental health treatment and for MSOTC’s use of disciplinary measures that served no therapeutic purpose. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court that Strutton had standing and his claims were not moot, as he “remains confined at MSOTC and subject to both the MSOTC’s evolving disciplinary measures and the related therapeutic impact of those decisions on his progress.”

Strutton’s first claim concerned staff shortages at MSOTC due to budget limitations. In response to those shortages, MSOTC’s administration made changes to the facility’s psychoeducational courses and process group sessions. Some psychoeducational courses were discontinued and process groups were doubled up with a waiting list for openings in the groups. This resulted in reduced opportunities for residents to participate in those programs, which are integral to reaching a level that leads to eventual release from civil commitment.

The appellate court held that Strutton did not have a fundamental due process right to sex offender treatment. As such, the “professional judgment” standard that Strutton argued should be applied was inapplicable. Looking to the “conscience-shocking prism,” the Court of Appeals found that while “the treatment Strutton received may have been less than ideal, and perhaps even inadequate by professional standards, it was not so lacking as to shock the conscience.” Although the program modifications were below the standards set by MSOTC’s directors, the temporary change to meet budgetary needs “was neither arbitrary nor egregious. Rather MSOTC sought to maintain essential treatment services.”

Finding no due process violation with respect to treatment programs, the Eighth Circuit turned to Strutton’s challenge of MSOTC’s use of a Restriction Table and later use of a Restriction Area as a way to discipline residents. Strutton was not physically restrained when he was subjected to those disciplinary methods, and retained “a comparatively free range of movement and activities,” including the ability “to get up and stretch, to leave to attend group sessions and meetings, to converse with other residents, to work on homework or legal issues, and to play cards.”

MSOTC officials contended the disciplinary methods were necessary to regulate residents and place those who violated rules under the observation of staff for a time period commensurate with their offending behavior – up to weeks at a time. While Strutton’s expert testified that the use of such methods was not “particularly effective,” the appellate court held they were constitutional because they did not shock the conscience.

The district court’s judgment was therefore affirmed. See: Strutton v. Meade, 668 F.3d 549 (8th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Strutton v. Meade