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North Dakota Sex Offender Commitment Reversed Due to Insufficient Trial Court Findings

by Lonnie Burton

On February 18, 2016, the North Dakota Supreme Court vacated the ruling of Ward County District Judge Gary H. Lee denying a petition for discharge from civil commitment as a sexually violent offender. The lower court's reasoning for denying the petition -- lack of progress in treatment -- was insufficient under North Dakota law to continue involuntary confinement, the state's high court said.

The case concerns the petition of Jeremy Tim Johnson, who was first committed as a "sexually dangerous individual" in 2012. A year later, after participating in the treatment program, Johnson petitioned the district court for discharge, but the court again found that he was a "sexually dangerous individual" and denied his petition. Johnson appealed, and the case was remanded for further findings of fact. The issue, under North Dakota law, was whether Johnson had "serious difficulty controlling his behavior." If he didn't, the law required his release.

The district court held the new hearing, made additional findings of fact, and again continued Johnson's confinement, and Johnson appealed once more.

The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed, and ordered Johnson's release from confinement.

"The district court's order does not make a finding regarding whether he has serious difficulty controlling his behavior. Rather, the court found Johnson's progression in treatment inadequate," the court wrote. The State argued this finding was sufficient to show that Johnson had a serious difficulty controlling his behavior because if he were able to control his behavior, he would have completed treatment. But the court disagreed.

"We agree that lack of progress in treatment may indicate serious difficulty in controlling behavior, but we decline to infer one equals the other." The court concluded that a specific finding is required on this point to justify a continuation of involuntary confinement.

The court emphasized that the need for specific findings was highlighted by the fact that there was conflicting testimony about the reasons Johnson failed to complete treatment. The records show that he showed up to every meeting and he advanced, yet struggled. There was no evidence to suggest that Johnson rejected treatment, the court said, and under these circumstances, the mere fact that he failed to complete the program was not enough, by itself, to uphold the district court's ruling.

Thus, the high court reversed the district court's decision and ordered Johnson to be released from civil confinement. See: In the Interest of Jeremy Tim Johnson, Petitioner, 835 N.W.2d 806 (S. Ct. ND 2016).

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Related legal case

In the Interest of Jeremy Tim Johnson, Petitioner