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Kansas Supreme Court: Four Years of Pretrial Detention too Long

In December 2016, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the release of a man who had been held in jail more than four years awaiting trial under the Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act (KSVPA). The state’s high court held that the unusual length of pretrial detention was a deprivation of liberty requiring due process protections.

Todd Ellison, a convicted sex offender, was subjected to involuntary commitment proceedings under the KSVPA following completion of his prison sentence. To civilly commit him, the state was required to convince a jury that Ellison suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes him likely to engage in acts of sexual violence.

If probable cause is found, a trial must be held within 60 days. However, state law allows for continuances at the request of either party for good cause or by the court on its own motion. The state of Kansas filed a KSVPA petition against Ellison on June 1, 2009, and probable cause was found 24 days later. Thereafter, the record reflects numerous continuances were requested and granted, though many were unclear as to which party had sought them.

In addition, three different judges were assigned to the case, and at one point three years into his pretrial detention, Ellison filed a habeas corpus petition along with several motions seeking his immediate release.

The state district court eventually heard Ellison’s motion for release, at which time it tried to attribute to each party their portion of the delay in the case. In the end, however, the court found the state was ultimately responsible for bringing Ellison to trial and that the 1,705 days between the probable cause hearing and the scheduled trial date was “a presumptively prejudicial delay,” as Ellison was confined with no chance for bail or other means of securing his release. The state moved to amend the order but the court denied the motion and directed that Ellison be freed.

The state appealed and, after the Court of Appeals reversed the district court, Ellison filed a petition for review. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the appellate decision and ordered Ellison’s release from custody.

“[A] person’s due process rights can be violated by an excessive delay in making the required findings while a KSVPA respondent is confined awaiting” trial, the high court wrote. “When the state seeks to impose physical restraints of significant duration on a person it must afford him fair procedure to determine the basis and legality of such a deprivation.”

The state Supreme Court analyzed the length of and reasons for the four years of Ellison’s pretrial confinement, and held that the “delay in bringing his case to trial was so unreasonable that it violated his due process rights.”

The Court concluded that while there was “no evidence of any improper motive lurking behind the State’s role in the delay, ... the State had an obligation to bring Ellison’s case to trial. It cannot fulfill that obligation by remaining passive year after year. The extraordinary length of the delay to provide Ellison with his day in court and the obvious prejudice he suffered being incarcerated during that time compels the result as the district court determined.”

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed and the case remanded for further proceedings to facilitate Ellison’s release. See: In re Care and Treatment of Ellison, 305 Kan. 519, 385 P.3d 15 (Kan. 2016). 

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Related legal case

In re Care and Treatment of Ellison