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Second Circuit Establishes Property Seizure Standards for Civilly Committed Persons

As a matter of first impression, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has undertaken a Fourth Amendment balancing analysis with regard to the right of a civilly committed person to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

Karl Ahlers, a convicted sex offender, was civilly committed by the State of New York after serving 23 years in prison for multiple sex offenses involving children. He filed a civil rights complaint in 2008 alleging First and Fourteenth Amendment violations and denial of procedural due process after staff at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center (the Center) seized and withheld his personal DVDs and CDs and his incoming mail.

Over time, Ahlers had collected 163 DVDs and 86 CDs (collectively, discs) with the Center’s permission. On April 21, 2008, staff entered his room without warning and seized all of his discs. Most were returned, but some were permanently confiscated for containing inappropriate sexual content. The district court dismissed Ahlers’ complaint for failure to state a claim.

On appeal, the Second Circuit held the reasonableness of the seizure was dependent on a balancing of interests: the state’s interest in order, security and treatment, and Ahlers’ property interest in retaining his discs. The appellate court held it was not unreasonable to seize the discs to examine them for prohibited sexually explicit material, and the fact that the Center had permitted Ahlers to initially receive the discs did not diminish its interest in assuring they were appropriate.

The Court of Appeals, in reaching this conclusion, recognized that involuntarily committed persons are entitled “to more considerate treatment and conditions of confinement than convicted criminals” (even though, in practice, civil commitment facilities are often prison-like). Nevertheless, the state has an interest in maintaining order, security and treatment of people who are civilly committed.

Turning to Ahlers’ procedural due process claim, the Second Circuit found his allegations were insufficient to support a claim that the Center’s pre-deprivation procedures were constitutionally inadequate. The appellate court held the Center’s interest “in quick and efficient searches militates against requiring that a detailed explanation or a written receipt be given at the time of seizure.” Nor was a written policy concerning such seizures necessary, the Court of Appeals said. Further, the Court wrote that staff needed sufficient time to screen the discs, and Ahlers had failed to allege whether post-deprivation procedures were available to him.

The Second Circuit also noted that it had not articulated a standard to analyze censorship of mail in the civil commitment context. In doing so, it held that a “patient must show regular and unjustifiable interference with incoming legal mail; the actions of facility staff in restricting civilly committed individuals’ access to legal mail are justified if they advance or protect the state’s interest in security, order, or treatment and the restrictions imposed are no greater than necessary to advance the governmental interest involved.”

The Court of Appeals did not establish a standard as to non-legal mail because Ahlers had not alleged that the interference with his non-legal mail was “regular” or “unjustifiable.” Lastly, the Court construed Ahlers’ complaint as one seeking damages and held the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because they had reason to believe they were not violating Ahlers’ rights.

Accordingly, the district court’s order of dismissal was affirmed. See: Ahlers v. Rabinowitz, 684 F.3d 53 (2d Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Ahlers v. Rabinowitz