Monday, May 23, 2016

No harm, no foul in sex-offender due process case

Here's a civil rights case with the least sympathetic plaintiffs as possible, which is why they were awarded one dollar in damages, which the Court of Appeals affirms.

The case is Warren v. Pataki, decided on May 17. In 2005, after the State Assembly declined to pass a law that would allow this to happen, Governor Pataki got a regulation from his Department of Mental Health that allowed the government to commit certain sex offenders to further confinement even after their criminal sentences expired. Pataki came up with this idea after a violent sex offender killed someone after release from prison. The Governor did not want the state bureaucracy to waste any time in coming up with this new system. He also wanted correctional officials to "push the envelope of the State's existing involuntary commitment law." Under the Sexual Violent Predator (SVP) initiative, experts would evaluate each inmate fitting that description upon their release from incarceration. If the inmates were found to a continued threat to the public, they were sent to a psychiatric center. (The SVP initiative is no longer in operation).

Politicians and even the general public love initiatives like this, but the courts take a close look at them because the government is restricting someone's freedom after the sentence is completed. The case went to trial that lasted three weeks. Among other claims, the jury found that plaintiffs' due process rights were violated, i.e., the procedures created by the hasty SVP were not quite fair. But the plaintiffs only got a dollar because the jury said that even had the plaintiffs received due process, they would have been civilly confined post-jail sentence anyway.

Here is where things get interesting, at least for me. How do we know the plaintiffs would have been confined even had they gotten due process? Because the federal court trial was in essence a "presentation of proof at a constitutionally adequate pre-commitment hearing, allowing the jury to evaluate what the strength of the State's evidence at such a hearing would  have been." In other words, the trial replicated the due process hearing. The state psychiatrists testified what information they were given with respect to plaintiffs and what conclusions they drew based on that information, and the cross-examination of these experts by plaintiff's counsel at trial was similar to the cross-examination at a due process hearing. The jury saw what would have happened had plaintiffs gotten the due process hearing they deserved and decided that, through that hearing, plaintiffs would have ended up in the psychiatric facility anyway. Hence, one dollar in damages for the civil rights violation, but no more than that because no harm to plaintiffs.

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