• May/June 2001
  • Vol. 2, No. 3

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High Court Upholds Civil Commitment of Sexual Predators in Washington State

Sexual predators in Washington State may be kept in jail even after completing their sentences, according to a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued January 17, 2001.

Seling v. Young, filed in 1994, concerned a challenge to Washington State's Community Protection Act of 1990. The Act allows the civil commitment of sexually violent predators who suffer mental illness or personality disorders that make them likely to be sexually violent again. The petitioner in the case, Andre Brigham Young, a six-time convicted rapist, contended that by keeping him in jail under the Community Protection Act after he had finished his prison term, the State was unconstitutionally punishing him twice for the same crime, a circumstance also known as “double jeopardy.” Young also contended that he was denied treatment required under State law.

The Supreme Court based its review of the case on the premise that Young's continued confinement was civil. By 8-1, the Court ruled that the conditions of Young's confinement did not render it punitive, and therefore that the post-sentence lock-up did not violate constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

A similar law in Kansas, known as the Sexually Violent Predator Act, was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in 1997.

In her majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that "An Act, found to be civil, cannot be deemed punitive 'as applied' to a single individual in violation of the Double Jeopardy and Ex Post Facto Clauses and provide cause for release." O'Connor also noted that sexual predators can take other actions, such as filing a civil-rights lawsuit, to try to force a State to provide proper treatment or improve conditions.

Justice John Paul Stevens, the lone dissenter, concluded that if Young's allegations about treatment deficiencies and the punitive character of his confinement were correct, "the statute in question should be characterized as a criminal law for Federal constitutional purposes."

A copy of this case is available online at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/00pdf/99-1185.pdf. (Editor's note: this link is no longer active. More information can be found at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-1185.ZO.html.

To obtain a print copy of the slip opinion, contact the Public Information Office of the U.S. Supreme Court at 202-479-3211.

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