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Court Reinstates SVPA Petition, Citing "Good Faith" Mistake

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 26, 2011 4:17 PM

The Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA) authorizes California to identify prisoners who suffer from mental disorders that predispose them to commit violent sexual crimes, and to confine and treat them until they no longer threaten society. The confinement process requires multiple prisoner evaluations from the Department of Mental Health (DMH).

So what happens when the state extends a potential SVPA-eligible prisoner's incarceration beyond his release date because it didn't have adequate staff to complete the SVPA evaluations?

Michael O'Connor was sentenced to 24 years in prison for 14 counts of committing lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14 years. While in prison, O'Connor sustained numerous rules violations, including possession of lewd sexual material involving minors and drawing pornographic sketches of children.

Nine months before his January 5, 2011 scheduled release date, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation initially screened O'Connor, and determined he met the confinement criteria under the SVPA

Due to staff shortages, the state did not have enough time to complete O'Connor's SVPA confinement process. The state requested and received a 45-day hold on O'Connor the day before his scheduled release. On February 8, 2011 the district attorney filed a petition for commitment of O'Connor as an SVP.

O'Connor moved to dismiss the SVP petition, contending the 45-day hold was not justified by "good cause." The Los Angeles Superior Court granted O'Connor's motion, ordered the SVP petition dismissed, and ordered O'Connor released from custody.

The state appealed, arguing that an unprecedented high volume of SVP referrals, combined with the unavailability of qualified evaluators, constituted exigent circumstances, and established good cause for the hold. Alternatively, the state claimed that it made a good faith mistake

Last week, a California appeals court concluded that lack of adequate resources did not justify extending an inmate's release date under the SVPA.

The appellate court relied on a 2010 decision from the California Supreme Court, People v. Engram, in which that court held that the unavailability of a judge or courtroom to timely bring a criminal defendant to trial does not constitute good cause to delay the defendant's trial when the circumstances are "fairly and reasonably attributable to the fault or neglect of the state."

Similarly, the appellate court found that budget and staff shortages could not justify state failures in O'Connor's case. A good faith mistake of law, on the other hand, could.

As nothing in the record suggested that DMH deliberately delayed its evaluations of O'Connor, or did not reasonably and in good faith believe that the 45-day hold was justified, the appellate court reinstated the SVPA petition against O'Connor and ordered the superior court to hear the matter.

This doesn't, however, mean that DMH can use the state-budget-restraints excuse in the future. After this case, DMH should know that chronic staff shortages are not good cause for a 45-day hold, so it is unlikely a court would reinstate another SVPA petition under similar circumstances.

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