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Effective Counsel Required in Kansas Civil Commitment Proceedings

The Kansas Supreme Court has held that prisoners facing civil commitment under the Kansas Sexually Violent Predators Act (KSVPA) have a due process right to effective assistance of counsel. The Court also held that ineffective assistance of counsel claims may be raised on appeal or in a state habeas corpus proceeding.

Before Robert C. Ontiberos was released from prison after completing his sentence for a 2001 aggravated sexual battery conviction, the state moved to have him civilly committed under the KSVPA.

Counsel was appointed to represent Ontiberos at a jury trial. The jury found Ontiberos to be a sexually violent predator, and he was civilly committed.

The Court of Appeals “vacated the commitment and remanded for a new trial because it held that Ontiberos received ineffective assistance of counsel and that the State’s attorney committed misconduct during the trial.”

On review, the Kansas Supreme Court first held that offenders facing KSVPA proceedings have a due process right to counsel under both the United States and Kansas Constitutions. The Court also noted that it had previously “held that when there is a right to counsel there is necessarily a correlative right to effective counsel – regardless of whether the right derives from a statute or the constitution.”

The Supreme Court thus found “that a person detained under the KSVPA may raise an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim on direct appeal using the ... remand procedure” of State v. Van Cleave, 239 Kan. 117, 716 P.2d 580 (Kan. 1986), or through a collateral attack by state habeas corpus.

Applying the two-prong ineffective assistance of counsel test of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct 2052 (1984), the Court found that Ontiberos was denied effective assistance of counsel when his attorney did not “familiarize himself with the evidence” and failed “to recognize the evidentiary rules governing expert testimony and cross-examination.” The Supreme Court concluded that those errors were prejudicial due to their pervasive nature and the fact that they “precluded the jury from hearing the only evidence corroborating Ontiberos’ expert’s testimony.” As such, “there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different” if not for the errors committed by counsel.

The Supreme Court further agreed with Ontiberos that the state’s attorney had committed misconduct. “Just as it was ineffective assistance of counsel for Ontiberos’ attorney to allow the State to cross-examine Ontiberos and [his expert] without admitting into evidence the documents the State relied on for impeachment,” the Court wrote, “the State committed error by cross-examining the witnesses in this fashion.”

That error “prevented the jury from deciding the facts and properly assessing credibility,” and “allowed the State to mischaracterize [a prison] discipline report and insinuate Ontiberos was disciplined while imprisoned for having an unauthorized weapon without support in the record. This is misconduct under any standard.”

Although the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the KSVPA, Ontiberos’ civil commitment was reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. See: In the Matter of Ontiberos, 295 Kan. 10, 287 P.3d 855 (Kan. 2012).

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Related legal cases

In the Matter of Ontiberos

In the Matter of Ontiberos