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California: Medical Records of Prisoner Being Evaluated for Civil Commitment Not Constitutionally Protected from Disclosure

The Ninth Circuit has held that the medical records of a California prisoner being evaluated for civil commitment under California's Sexually Violent Predator Act, Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 6600-6609, are not constitutionally protected from disclosure.

Convicted in 1986 of various sex offenses and sentenced to 31 years in state prison, Michael Seaton was transferred to Atascadero State Hospital for evaluation for possible civil commitment as he approached release in 2002.

He filed suit in federal court against the Director of the Department of Mental Health, the administrator of the state hospital, and the two psychologists who examined him and then gave their opinions to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office regarding his mental health status and his predisposition to commit future criminal sexual acts. Proceeding pro se in the district court (but with the assistance of pro bono counsel on appeal), Seaton's principal claim was that his constitutional right to the privacy of his medical records was violated. The district court dismissed the case under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) for failure to state a claim.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit considered whether Seaton had a constitutional right to informational privacy under the Due Process Clause. It segregated his claim into two time periods – the first when he was still serving his sentence, and the second during any subsequent period when he was being evaluated. As to the first period, the Court had little trouble concluding that whatever privacy rights Seaton may have, those rights are overridden by legitimate penological interests (in protecting staff and other prisoners from violence, as well as in managing rehabilitative program efforts).

As to the second time period, the Court noted that the Supreme Court has never recognized a constitutional right to privacy in medical records. It also noted that, in any event, sexually violent predator evaluation falls within a long established exception to confidentiality of medical records for reasons of public health and safety. See: Seaton v. Mayberg, 610 F.3d 530 (9th Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Seaton v. Mayberg