by Matt Clarke
On January 3, 2017, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion that reversed a district court’s finding of substantive due process violations in a civil rights complaint brought by civilly committed sex offenders in Minnesota.
In the class-action suit, sex offenders who had been committed pursuant to the Minnesota Civil Commitment and Treatment Act (MCCTA), Minnesota Statute § 253D, claimed the MCCTA and practices of the managers in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) had violated their substantive due process rights both facially and as applied.
Minnesota’s civil commitment program is known for its large number of residents – at around 720, the state has the highest per capita population of civilly committed sex offenders in the nation. It is also known for not discharging those residents; only one person has been unconditionally released from the program during its 20-year history. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.49]. Civilly committed offenders are confined at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
Following months of litigation and a six-week bench trial, U.S. District Judge Court Donovan Frank issued an injunction after finding that, among other issues, the MSOP’s low release rate and lack of regular risk evaluations for residents violated their substantive due process rights. The court used a strict scrutiny standard of review.
The defendants appealed and the Eighth Circuit reversed after finding the district court had applied an incorrect standard when evaluating the substantive due process claims, though the appellate court overruled the defendants’ arguments related to lack of jurisdiction and judicial bias.
According to the Court of Appeals, although civil commitment is a “significant deprivation of liberty,” sex offenders who pose a significant danger to themselves or others do not possess a fundamental liberty interest in freedom from physical restraint. Therefore, the standard of scrutiny for a facial challenge to the civil commitment statute is whether it bears a rational relationship to a legitimate government purpose. For an as-applied challenge, the proper standard is whether the defendants’ conduct both shocks the conscience and violates a fundamental liberty interest.
The Eighth Circuit noted the reasonable relationship standard of review was highly deferential, and none of the reasons given by the district court for finding the MCCTA facially unconstitutional under the incorrect strict scrutiny standard survived under a reasonable relationship standard.
The appellate court also held that the district court’s as-applied analysis was actually a criticism of the MCCTA itself in disguise. For example, the lower court had criticized the failure of MSOP managers to conduct periodic risk assessments, but the statute did not require such assessments. The Court of Appeals held that none of the six as-applied violations found by the district court survived under the proper standard of review, as they did not both shock the conscience and violate a fundamental liberty interest.
“This is a train wreck for civil rights,” said attorney Warren Maas, who represents sex offenders. “My concern is that staff at MSOP will ... stop working as hard and just say, ‘We’re going to let these guys sit because it’s the easiest thing to do.’”
The district court’s judgment was reversed, the injunction vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings on the plaintiffs’ remaining claims. The plaintiffs sought certiorari review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which was denied on October 2, 2017. See: Karsjens v. Piper, 845 F.3d 394 (8th Cir. 2017), rehearing denied, cert. denied.
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