4th Cir Reverses Civil Commitment Dismissal Due to Clear Error - U.S. Fourth Circuit
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4th Cir Reverses Civil Commitment Dismissal Due to Clear Error

Approximately three months before Walter Wooden was to be released from federal prison, the government sought to commit him as a “sexually dangerous person” under the civil-commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court held that the government failed to prove Wooden suffered from pedophilia and failed to prove he would have serious difficulty refraining from re-offending. The court dismissed the government’s petition and ordered Wooden released.

On Thursday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s order, and remanded the case for reconsideration.

In a civil commitment proceeding, the government must prove through clear and convincing evidence that an offender is a sexually dangerous person who would have serious difficulty refraining from sexually-violent conduct if released. The Act's mental illness and serious-difficulty-refraining requirements ensure that commitment is limited to inmates with a volitional impairment -- inmates "whose mental illness renders them dangerous beyond their control."

Here, the Fourth Circuit noted several factors that supported the government's petition for civil commitment. Wooden's intellectual capacity is somewhat limited. His I.Q. has been measured at 70, which qualifies as "borderline retarded." Wooden was sexually assaulted as early as age 8 or 9. He has been arrested for sexual offenses against children at least six times since January 1972. Even after prison and court-ordered sex-offender treatment, Wooden admitted to deviant sexual thoughts about children and to being sexually aroused in the presence of children.

At the civil commitment proceeding, two clinical psychologists specializing in forensic psychology and risk assessment for sexual offenders -- Drs. Hy Malinek and Heather Ross -- testified that Wood met the criteria for civil commitment. Dr. Malinek also testified that Wooden met the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia, which qualifies as a serious mental illness under the Act. The district court, however, ruled that the government failed to make its case.

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in its conclusion that the application of the Act to Wooden violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. The court also concluded that the record did not support the district court's determination that Wooden does not "suffer from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder" because he no longer suffers from pedophilia, nor did it support the district court's determination that Wooden would not have "serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released."

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