Bobby Joe Knight served 20 years in a California prison for sexual assault. Though his sentence ended in 2004, he's still behind bars.
Why? California's Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA), which allows the state to initiate civil proceedings to hold a certain sub-species of violent sexual predators in a state hospital if the state proves "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant is likely to "engage in sexually violent behavior" due to a mental disorder.
Of course, much like criminal proceedings have a right to a speedy trial, the civil confinement procedures are supposed to kick in quickly as well. Otherwise, we'd just be indefinitely detaining rapists for funsies.
But nine years isn't exactly speedy. What happened?
It started with Knight's attorney, who filed repeated motions for continuances. Knight also played his part by repeatedly requesting a new attorney. By April 2009, he was tired of waiting and filed a pro se habeas corpus petition in the state court system. It was denied, both at the Superior and Appellate levels.
We're Not Getting Any Younger Here
In December 2009, he switched to the federal courts, who again denied him, this time due to Younger abstention. Because the federal proceedings were in progress, the state deferred further SVPA action until they were resolved.
The feds are parrying to the state. The state is parrying to the feds. It's like when you open a door and say "after you," but the exceedingly polite recipient responds, "no, after you." Annoying, right?
Younger abstention is supposed to be a rarely-used disposition, appropriate only when:
- There is an ongoing state judicial proceeding;
- The proceedings implicate important state interests;
- There is an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings for the federal plaintiff to raise constitutional challenges; and
- The federal action would enjoin the state proceedings or have the practical effect of doing so.
The Ninth Circuit described the SVPA proceedings as "ongoing" in name only. Plus, the appellate court has previously stated that where state proceedings have been stayed pending resolution of federal proceedings, the proceedings are no longer ongoing for Younger purposes.
No ongoing state proceedings means abstention is inappropriate. That doesn't mean release, however. The court remanded the case with a conditional writ of habeas corpus that requires the state to either try the SVPA proceedings in 90 days or release Knight.
- Knight v. Ahlin (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- 9th Circuit to Hear Prop 35 Sex Trafficking Case? (FindLaw's Ninth Circuit Blog)
- 9th Circuit Reluctantly Affirms Habeas Corpus Denial Due to AEDPA (FindLaw's Ninth Circuit Blog)