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Third Circuit: Non-Sex-Offender Prisoners Entitled to Due Process Before Prison Requires Sex Offender Treatment

by Matt Clarke

On October 4, 2010, the Third Circuit held that a prisoner who has not been charged with or convicted of a sex offense may not be compelled to participate in sex offender treatment unless the prison first provides due process.

Charles S. Renchenski was convicted of murdering a woman. The body bore abundant evidence of a sexual element to the crime and Renchenski's statement also indicated a possible sexual element. He was sentenced to life without parole. Initially, his correctional plan did not include sex offender treatment as an area of concern. Later this was changed, then changed back, then changed again so that he was required to attend at least three sex offender treatment programs.

42 Pa.Cons.Stat. § 9718(a) mandates behavioral modification therapy for sex offenders. However, Renchenski was never determined to be a sex offender (SO). Furthermore, the evaluation tools used for the sex offender treatment program (SOTP) only evaluate what level of treatment to place the SO in, not whether the prisoner is an SO. The state claimed that SOTP was voluntary. This was belied by mandatory language in the statute and policies and disciplinary¬-action-like sanctions imposed on those who refuse to participate.

Renchenski filed a pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court alleging violations of his due process, equal protection, and Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights. Possibly without notifying Renchenski of its intention of doing so, the district court converted the state's motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment on all issues. Renchenski appealed.

The Third Circuit held that the imposition of a mandatory SOTP exceeds the sentence imposed by the court. It also stigmatizes a prisoner, marking the prisoner as an SO and therefore making the prisoner a target for physical and sexual abuse in prison. Therefore, the Third Circuit found "an independent liberty interest emanating from the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment" which does not depend upon state law for its creation and requires that due process be followed before SOTP is mandated for a prisoner who has been neither charged with nor convicted of a sex offense.

Holding that Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980) provided the most appropriate framework for the hearing, the Third Circuit held that the due process requirements include: (1) advance written notice of; (2) a hearing to determine classification as a sex offender with; (3) disclosure of the evidence to be relied upon; (4) an opportunity to be heard and present evidence in person; (5) an opportunity to present witness testimony and cross-examine adverse witnesses (unless there is good cause not to permit it); (6) an independent decisionmaker administering the hearing; (7) a written statement of the decision, the evidence relied on and the reasons for the classification; and (8) effective and timely notice of all the foregoing rights. The Third Circuit specifically did not hold that due process required the state to appoint an attorney for the hearing.

The Third Circuit held that, since it did not effect Renchenski's parole (because he was serving life without parole) and only involved sanctions similar to disciplinary sanctions, the coercion used was not sufficient to invoke the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. It similarly disposed of all remaining constitutional claims. However, it did note that Renchenski should have been given notice of the conversion order, a copy of Rule 56 and a short summary of the utility of a Rule 56(f) affidavit, requiring this in all future conversions of motions to dismiss in pro se cases, but finding it harmless error in this case.

The grant of summary judgment was reversed as to the Due Process Clause claim and affirmed as to all other claims. Renchenski was represented on appeal by Washington D.C. attorneys Jeffery M. Theodore and David H. Colburn. See: Renchenski v. Williams, 622 F.3d 315 (3rd Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Renchenski v. Williams