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Fifth Circuit Denies Full Due Process Protections to Convicted Mental Health Prisoner

Petitioner, whose name was sealed by court order, challenged her civil confinement instituted pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 4245(d), which confined her to a mental-health facility after a proceeding in which she was ordered confined based upon a preponderance-of-evidence standard, rather than by “clear and convincing” evidence, or by even the higher standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Petitioner, represented by a court-appointed defense attorney, argued that the Due Process Clause of the Constitution requires a higher standard of proof.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, effectively interpreting the Constitution to say that in this category of confinement prisoners were not entitled to its protection.

In this case, petitioner clearly recognized that civil commitment is prison by a different name, noting that Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause requires a clear-and-convincing standard for the indefinite commitment of a person with mental illness, and the Section 4245’s evidentiary standard is “unconstitutionally low.”

According to the Fifth Circuit, “we reasoned that the different contexts for civil commitment-prisoners as distinguished from citizens-reflected distinct liberty interests that justified different evidentiary standards,” citing U.S. v. Muhammad, 165 F. 3d 327 (5th Cir. 1999), and U.S. v. Klat, 97-11282, (5th Cir. 1999). Taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that the current case is precedent for similarly tailoring other Constitutional protections as inapplicable to prisoners.

The Fifth Circuit also cited other cases that held that “although prisoners still have interests in not being confined to mental hospitals, they have lost their right to freedom from confinement as a result of their convictions.’”

The decision also effectively converts Petitioner’s underlying sentence of 216-months to one of indefinite confinement, based upon the lower standard of proof that it found acceptable in this matter. That would require another filing on the part of Petitioner to gain her freedom after her underlying criminal sentence was completed.  However, at that time, presumably the Court might be more willing to accept the premise that after her sentence is completed, she will in fact have a constitutionally-protected “liberty interest” that will fully restore her Due Process rights. See: Sealed Appellee, v. Sealed Appellant, 14-10274, 5th Cir. Court of Appeals, November 17, 2014.

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Related legal cases

Sealed Appellee, v. Sealed Appellant

U.S. v. Muhammad

U.S. v. Klat

Addington v. Texas,