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Qualified Immunity Denied: Governor Can't Order Civil Commitment

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 14, 2013 2:59 PM

In 2005, then-New York Governor George Pataki directed the State's Office of Mental Health (OMH) and Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) to develop a plan to take executive action to implement a sexually-violent predator initiative that would result in the involuntary commitment of selected SVPs to state psychiatric facilities after the expiration of their criminal sentences.

Those who were committed under initiative weren't too pleased with the lack of due process, and sued Governor Pataki and officials of OMH and DOCS.

This week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the program violated the plaintiffs' procedural due process rights, and that state officials shouldn't receive qualified immunity because they should have known better.

The Second Circuit covered multiple holidays with this case: The court heard oral arguments on Halloween, and released its opinion on Valentine's Day. But the appellate court's decision is more of a fright fest than a love fest for state officials.

The court concluded that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, there was sufficient evidence to support their claim that they were denied their right to procedural due process before being civilly committed. The panel also agreed with the district court that a reasonable official in the defendants' position would have known that the process by which the plaintiffs were committed did not satisfy basic constitutional requirements and that the defendants are therefore not entitled to qualified immunity.

Here, the Second Circuit ultimately sided with the district court that "the basic proposition that due process requires a pre-deprivation hearing unless there is an immediate danger to society" was well established prior to 2005.

Despite the litany of cases cited by the defendants to suggest that due process tolerates civil commitment of inmates without either notice or a hearing, the appellate court distinguished that none of those cases involved a civil commitment effected without notice or a pre-deprivation hearing where the inmate was safely confined, and did not pose an immediate threat.

This decision doesn't mean that the committed plaintiffs win their case; it simply means that they get to bring their case to trial.

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