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Federal Court Limits New York’s Civil Commitment Statute, but Injunction Vacated on Appeal

A decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York severely restricted portions of New York’s Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act (SOMTA). A lawsuit filed by Mental Hygiene Legal Service (MHLS) had sought an injunction against enforcement of various provisions of the Act, which provides for the civil confinement of certain sex offenders. However, the injunction issued by the district court was vacated by the Second Circuit.

SOMTA permits the “civil management” of individuals convicted of certain sex crimes, and in challenging the Act, MHLS exercised its statutory mandate to “safeguard the rights of any patient or resident from abuse or mistreatment.” SOMTA granted New York mental health officials the power to confine “certain sex offenders after completion of their prison terms, parole terms, or other periods of state custody. Such civil management is predicated on the danger to society that recidivist sex offenders pose.”

SOMTA became effective on April 13, 2007, the day after MHLS filed suit challenging seven of the Act’s provisions: MHL Sec. 10.06(f), authorizing the New York Attorney General to issue a “securing petition” to detain certain individuals in advance of a probable cause hearing, without notice or opportunity for review; MHL Sec. 10.06(k), which mandates involuntary civil detention pending a commitment trial, based upon a finding at the probable cause hearing that the individual may have a mental abnormality with a finding of current dangerousness; and MHL Sec. 10.06(j)(iii), which forbids an individual indicted for a crime, but found competent to stand trial, to contest the commission of the acts that constituted the offense at the probable cause hearing.

Also challenged were MHL Sec. 10.07(d), which authorizes civil commitment for defendants found incompetent to stand trial and never convicted of any crime, based upon a showing by clear and convincing evidence that they had committed a sexual offense; MHL Sec. 10.07(c), which authorizes the factfinder at a civil commitment trial to make a retroactive finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that certain non-sex crimes were committed with a “sexual motivation”; MHL Sec. 10.05(e), which authorizes certain pre-hearing psychiatric exams in the absence of counsel; and MHL Sec. 33.13(c)(9)(vii), permitting the release of confidential clinical and medical records under specified circumstances.

In ruling on MHLS’s motion for summary judgment, the district court enjoined enforcement of SOMTA sections (c), (d) and (k). Section (k) was found unconstitutional on its face as it permitted confinement without a judicial hearing. Section (c) was similarly found unconstitutional, in that it applied the label of “sex offender” based only on a civil proceeding requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that an individual had committed a crime. Section (d) was found unconstitutional on similar grounds.

Enforcement of SOMTA sections (e) and (f) was allowed, as the court reasoned that civil detention would be limited to merely a “brief period” before a judicial hearing, based on an official assertion that an individual is deemed “dangerous.”

The defendants also filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that MHLS lacked standing to litigate the suit; however, that argument was rejected by the court, which found that MHLS was required by statute to defend the rights of individuals subject to SOMTA. The defendants had also alleged that no “realistic threat” existed to assert a danger to MHLS’s clients because no civil management petitions had yet been filed by the state. The district court found no merit to that argument, noting that the fact that the Act “could” be applied constituted a danger which created a triable issue.

Additionally, the court declined to exercise the abstention doctrine set forth in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), which generally requires federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over claims that call into question state court proceedings.

Accordingly, the district court entered a permanent injunction that enjoined the defendants from “detaining any Article 10 respondent pending trial ... in the absence of a specified, individualized judicial finding of probable cause to believe that the person is sufficiently dangerous to require confinement....” Additionally, the defendants were “enjoined from civilly managing, pursuant to Article 10” any person charged with a sex offense or designated felony, unless there “has been a jury finding, or a finding by the court if a jury trial is waived, that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the person did engage in the conduct constituting the underlying offense,” or that the designated felony was sexually motivated. See: Mental Hygiene Legal Service v. Cuomo, 785 F.Supp.2d 205 (S.D.N.Y. 2011).

The defendants appealed.

On June 20, 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, “[u]pon review of the record and the arguments of counsel,” vacated the district court’s order and permanent injunction, and remanded the case “for reconsideration in light of our decision in Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York Coalition for Quality Assisted Living, Inc., 675 F.3d 149 (2d Cir. 2012).” The Disability Advocates ruling addressed whether nonmembership organizations have standing to sue on behalf of their clients.

“On remand, the parties shall have a full opportunity to adduce any facts relevant to the question of whether plaintiff-appellee Mental Hygiene Legal Services can establish any of the ‘indicia of membership’ required for a nonmembership organization to assert associational standing,” the appellate court wrote. See: Mental Hygiene Legal Services v. Schneiderman, 472 Fed.Appx. 45 (2d Cir. 2012) (unpublished).

This case remains pending before the district court on remand, on cross-motions for summary judgment. See: Mental Hygiene Legal Service v. Cuomo, U.S.D.C. (S.D. N.Y.), Case No. 1:07-cv-02935-DAB.

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Related legal cases

Mental Hygiene Legal Service v. Cuomo

Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York Coalition for Quality Assisted Living, Inc.

Mental Hygiene Legal Services v. Schneiderman

Mental Hygiene Legal Service v. Cuomo