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Mental Hygiene Legal Service v. Spitzer

November 16, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gerard E. Lynch, District Judge


On March 14, 2007, Governor Spitzer signed the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act, which became effective on April 13, 2007, in part as Article 10 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law ("MHL"), creating a new legal regime for "Sex Offenders Requiring Civil Commitment or Supervision." As part of the Act, the New York Legislature found that "recidivistic sex offenders pose a danger to society that should be addressed through comprehensive programs of treatment and management," MHL § 10.01(a), and that some "sex offenders have mental abnormalities that predispose them to engage in repeated sex offenses," MHL § 10.01(b). The Legislature concluded that such offenders should receive . . . treatment while they are incarcerated as a result of the criminal process, and should continue to receive treatment when that incarceration comes to an end. In extreme cases, confinement of the most dangerous offenders will need to be extended by civil process in order to provide them such treatment and to protect the public from their recidivist conduct.


On April 12, 2007, Plaintiff Mental Hygiene Legal Service ("MHLS") filed a declaratory judgment action attacking the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Act, and subsequently moved for preliminary injunctive relief and a temporary restraining order. Subsequently, Shawn Short, an individual subject to various provisions of the law, intervened in the matter and joined MHLS's motions. Plaintiffs do not attack the substantive constitutionality of the statutory provision for civil commitment. Rather, their motion focuses narrowly on particular procedural provisions of the Act, contending that specific aspects of the regime it creates fail to provide the requisite procedural safeguards necessary to comport with the constitutional command that persons may not be deprived of liberty without due process of law. Plaintiffs also contend that certain aspects of the statutory regime deny the individuals subject to those provisions the equal protection of laws guaranteed by the Constitution. Together, the plaintiffs challenge:

(A) MHL § 10.06(f), which authorizes the New York Attorney General to issue a "securing petition" to detain certain individuals beyond the completion of their term of imprisonment, in advance of the probable cause hearing, without notice or opportunity for review;

(B) MHL § 10.06(k), which mandates involuntary civil detention pending the commitment trial, based on a finding at the probable cause hearing that the individual may have a mental abnormality, without a finding of current dangerousness;

(C) MHL § 10.06(j)(iii), which forbids an individual indicted for a crime but found incompetent to stand trial to contest the commission of the acts that constituted the crime at the probable cause hearing;

(D) MHL § 10.07(d), which authorizes civil commitment for persons found incompetent to stand trial and never convicted of any offense based on a showing by clear and convincing evidence that they committed the sexual offense with which they were charged;

(E) MHL § 10.07(c), which authorizes the factfinder at the commitment trial to make a retroactive determination by clear and convincing evidence that certain non-sex crimes were committed with a "sexual[] motivat[ion];"

(F) MHL § 10.05(e), which authorizes certain pre-hearing psychiatric examinations, in the absence of counsel, of individuals subject to the Act.*fn1

Oral argument was heard on September 14, 2007.

For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs have demonstrated irreparable injury as well as a likelihood of success in demonstrating that § 10.06(k) is unconstitutional insofar as it permits civil detention pending trial without an individualized finding of current dangerousness and that § 10.07(d) is unconstitutional insofar as it allows detention of individuals after the commitment trial absent a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that such individuals committed the acts which constituted the crime for which they had been charged. Defendants' motion to dismiss these portions of plaintiffs' complaint will therefore be denied. Plaintiffs have failed to make a showing sufficient for a preliminary injunction against the restrictions on contesting certain past events at the probable cause hearing as provided for in § 10.06(j)(iii). Defendants' motion to dismiss that portion of plaintiffs' facial attack against this provision will be granted.

Both plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and defendants' motion to dismiss regarding challenges to the securing petition procedures, as provided for in § 10.06(f), the retroactive determination of the "sexual motivation" of a past crime, as provided for in § 10.07(c), and the failure to appoint counsel in advance of certain pre-hearing psychiatric exams, as provided for in § 10.05(e), will be denied.


I. Article Ten of the MHL

Provisions of the Act are triggered when a "person who may be a detained sex offender is nearing an anticipated release" from confinement or parole. MHL § 10.05(b).*fn2 A "[d]etained sex offender" is (for the most part) a person "in the care, custody, control, or supervision of an agency with jurisdiction," as a result of having been adjudicated to have committed certain sex offenses or certain designated felonies with a "sexual[] motivat[ion]." MHL § 10.03(g).*fn3 As such a person nears release, a case review team ("CRT") of three individuals, at least two of whom must be mental health professionals meeting certain statutory requirements, MHL § 10.05(a), are to determine whether the person is a "sex offender requiring civil management." MHL § 10.06(a).

As defined by the Act, a "[s]ex offender requiring civil management" is a "detained sex offender who suffers from a mental abnormality," who is either "a dangerous sex offender requiring confinement" or "a sex offender requiring strict and intensive supervision." MHL § 10.03(q). A "[d]angerous sex offender requiring confinement" is a "detained sex offender suffering from a mental abnormality involving such a strong predisposition to commit sex offenses, and such an inability to control behavior, that the person is likely to be a danger to others and to commit sex offenses if not confined to a secure treatment facility." MHL § 10.03(e). A "[s]ex offender[] requiring strict and intensive supervision" is a "detained sex offender who suffers from a mental abnormality but is not a dangerous sex offender requiring confinement." MHL § 10.03(r). A mental abnormality is defined to be a "congenital or acquired condition, disease or disorder that affects the emotional, cognitive, or volitional capacity of a person in a manner that predisposes him or her to the commission of conduct constituting a sex offense and that results in that person having serious difficulty in controlling such conduct." MHL § 10.03(i).

If the CRT finds the offender to require civil management, then the Attorney General may file a "sex offender civil management petition" in New York State court. MHL § 10.06(a). Within 30 days after the petition is filed, the court "shall conduct a hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the respondent is a sex offender requiring civil management." MHL § 10.06(g). At the conclusion of the probable cause hearing as described in § 10.06(g), the court "shall determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the respondent is a sex offender requiring civil management." MHL § 10.06(k). If the court so determines, it "shall order the respondent . . . committed to a secure treatment facility . . . [and] the respondent shall not be released pending the completion of [the] trial [contemplated in MHL § 10.07]." MHL § 10.06(k).

Under § 10.07, at the commitment trial, which is supposed to begin within 60 days of the probable cause determination, the jury (or judge if the right to a jury trial is waived) determines by clear and convincing evidence "whether the respondent is a detained sex offender who suffers from a mental abnormality." MHL §§ 10.07(a), (d). If such a determination is made, then the judge "shall consider whether the respondent is a dangerous sex offender requiring confinement or a sex offender requiring strict and intensive supervision." MHL § 10.07(f). If at the commitment hearing the court finds: by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent has a mental abnormality involving such a strong predisposition to commit sex offenses, and such an inability to control behavior, that the respondent is likely to be a danger to others and to commit sex offenses if not confined to a secure treatment facility, then the court shall find the respondent to be a dangerous sex offender requiring confinement.

MHL § 10.07(f). Upon such a finding, the respondent "shall be committed to a secure treatment facility . . . until such time as he or she no longer requires confinement." Id. Once committed, the individual shall have a yearly psychiatric exam, and a right to be examined by an independent examiner. MHL § 10.09(b). In certain circumstances, the detained individual has a right to petition the court for an evidentiary hearing, and detention will continue only if the Attorney General can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent is still a dangerous sex offender requiring confinement. MHL § 10.09(h). While committed, sex offenders shall be kept in "secure treatment facilit[ies]," MHL § 10.06(k)(i), segregated from those who are not "sex offenders." MHL § 10.10(e). If the court grants a subsequent hearing based on the detainee's petition and finds that the detained individual suffers from a mental abnormality, but is no longer a dangerous sex offender, then the court will discharge the individual from custody but order a regimen of strict and intensive supervision and treatment. MHL § 10.09(h).

If the judge does not find that the respondent is a dangerous sex offender requiring confinement, "then the court shall make a finding of disposition that the respondent is a sex offender requiring strict and intensive supervision, and the respondent shall be subject to a regimen of strict and intensive supervision and treatment." MHL § 10.07(f).*fn4 In making such a finding, the court shall consider "the conditions that would be imposed upon the respondent if subject to a regimen of strict and intensive supervision, and all available information about the prospects for the respondent's possible re-entry into the community." Id. An individual may petition every two years for modification or termination of the strict and intensive supervision. MHL § 10.11(f). Upon receipt of a petition for termination, the court may, in its discretion, hold a hearing where the Attorney General must show by clear and convincing evidence that the individual is still a sex offender in need of civil management. MHL § 10.11(h).

II. Legal Standards

A. Preliminary Injunction

To obtain a preliminary injunction the moving party must show irreparable injury and either (i) likelihood of success on the merits or (ii) sufficiently serious questions going to the merits and a balance of hardships decidedly tipped in the movant's favor. Green Party of New York State v. New York State Bd. of Elections, 389 F.3d 411, 418 (2d Cir. 2004); Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. v. Saban Entertainment, Inc., 60 F.3d 27, 33 (2d Cir. 1995); Jackson Dairy, Inc. v. H.P. Hood & Sons, Inc., 596 F.2d 70, 72 (2d Cir. 1979) (per curiam).

B. Procedural Due Process

Procedural due process claims are to be examined in "two steps: the first asks whether there exists a liberty or property interest which has been interfered with by the State . . . [and] the second examines whether the procedures attendant upon that deprivation were constitutionally sufficient." Kentucky Dep't of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460 (1989) (citations omitted). Whether a deprivation affects a liberty or property interest can be a difficult question.

In this case, however, there is no question. Persons affected by Article 10 are threatened with deprivation not merely of a liberty interest, but of liberty tout court, as the Act contemplates that those found within its scope may be confined against their will.

If a protected liberty interest is implicated by state action, then the Court must determine what process is due. Due process is not a fixed concept, but flexible, and depends on the particular circumstances. Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 127 (1990). The extent of process due is analyzed under the framework established by Mathews v. Eldridge:

[I]dentification of the specific dictates of due process generally requires consideration of three distinct factors: First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail. 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976). When a person's liberty interests are implicated, due process requires at a minimum notice and an opportunity to be heard. Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507, 533 (2004) (plurality opinion) (The "central meaning of procedural due process" is that parties "whose rights are to be affected are entitled to be heard; and in order that they may enjoy that right they must first be notified. It is equally fundamental that the right to notice and an opportunity to be heard must be granted at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.") (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552 (1965); see also United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. 43, 53 (1993); Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 437 (1971).

Though the Mathews v. Eldridge analysis requires an evaluation of each challenged statutory provision or instance of government deprivation, certain general comments are appropriate. The personal interests implicated by Article 10 are fundamental human interests, including (i) liberty per se, which may be lost to involuntary commitment or strict probation-like conditions which must be complied with on pain of involuntary commitment;*fn5 (ii) involuntary psychiatric or behavior modification medication or other treatment;*fn6 and (iii) the lifelong stigma attached to the label of sex offender that may adversely affect an individual's ability to live and work.*fn7 An erroneous deprivation due to inadequate procedures in this context will likely lead to, at a minimum, substantial stigma and mandated strict supervision. The governmental interests involved are also serious. Individuals who are mentally ill and dangerous, and prone to the commission of sexual offenses, pose serious risks to our communities. New York thus has a strong interest in ensuring the safety of potential victims of such offenses.

C. Involuntary Detention of Persons With Mental Illness

The Constitution does not guarantee an "absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members." Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346, 356-57 (1997) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Civil commitment is appropriate in certain circumstances, but it "must be justified on the basis of a legitimate state interest, and the reasons for committing a particular individual must be established in an appropriate proceeding. Equally important, confinement must cease when those reasons no longer exist." O'Connor, 422 U.S. at 580 (Burger, C.J., concurring), citing McNeil v. Director, Patuxent Inst., 407 U.S. 245, 249-50 (1972) and Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972). States have, in "certain narrow circumstances," provided for "forcible civil detainment of people who . . . pose a danger to the public," and the Supreme Court has consistently upheld . . . involuntary commitment statutes when (1) the confinement takes place pursuant to proper procedures and evidentiary standards, (2) there is a finding of dangerousness either to one's self or others, and (3) proof of dangerousness is coupled . . . with the proof of some additional factor, such as a 'mental illness' or 'mental abnormality.'

Kansas v. Crane, 534 U.S. 407, 409-10 (2002), citing Hendricks, 521 U.S. at 357-58 (internal quotation marks omitted). "[E]ven if . . . involuntary confinement [is] initially permissible [and founded upon a constitutionally adequate basis], it [can] not constitutionally continue after that basis no longer exist[s]." O'Connor, 422 U.S. at 575 (citation omitted);*fn8 see also Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71, 78 (1992) ("[K]eeping [someone] against his will in a mental institution is improper absent a determination in civil commitment proceedings of current mental illness and dangerousness.").

The substantive standards governing involuntary civil detention are well established: "A finding of 'mental illness' alone cannot justify a State's locking up a person against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement." O'Connor, 422 U.S. at 575. "Mere public intolerance or animosity cannot constitutionally justify the deprivation of a person's physical liberty." Id. (citations omitted). Involuntary civil confinement "may entail indefinite confinement, [which] could be a more intrusive exercise of state power than incarceration following a criminal conviction." Project Release v. Prevost, 722 F.2d 960, 971 (2d Cir. 1983). Though "involuntary civil commitment constitutes a significant deprivation that requires due process protection, . . . the difference between civil and criminal confinement may nonetheless be reflected in different standards and procedures applicable in the context of each of the two systems--so long as due process is satisfied." Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). In the case of civil confinement, "due process requires that the nature and duration of commitment bear some reasonable relation to the purpose for which the individual is committed." Jackson, 406 U.S. at 738. However, "due process does not tolerate the involuntary confinement of a nondangerous individual." Project Release, 722 F.2d at 972 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

III. The Challenged Provisions

Plaintiffs do not challenge New York's authority to involuntarily commit individuals who have in the past committed sexual crimes and are at present mentally ill and dangerous. Nor can they, because the Supreme Court has held that such detention is constitutionally authorized. See Hendricks, 521 U.S. at 356, 369-71 (holding that confinement of sex offenders based on proof of mental abnormality and a finding of dangerousness does not violate substantive due process, and rejecting claims that sexual offender detention provisions violate the Double Jeopardy Clause or constitute impermissible ex post facto lawmaking). Plaintiffs' challenges therefore leave untouched the central provisions of the new statutory scheme, which authorize detention based on a finding that an individual who (i) has committed a sex crime (or the acts which constitute the crime) and (ii) is mentally ill and dangerous may be involuntarily committed. Plaintiffs object, however, to some provisions of the ...

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