Fourth Circuit Finds Federal Commitment of Sexually Dangerous Persons Does Not Violate Equal Protection

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Reversing the decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision written by Judge G. Steven Agee, held on January 9th that the federal scheme found in 18 U.S.C. [section] 4248 permitting civil commitment of sexually dangerous persons does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. United States v. Timms, 664 F.3d 436 (4th Cir. 2012). Timms' case was one of the first cases to arise under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. That section authorizes the civil commitment of individuals in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who are determined to be a sexually dangerous person, defined as someone "who has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation and who is sexually dangerous to others." 18. U.S.C. [section] 4247(a)(5).

The Federal Correctional Institution in Burner, North Carolina is the federal institution to which prisoners in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons are now transferred for assessments as sexually dangerous persons. Most of these cases are therefore being heard before the North Carolina district court and appealed to the Fourth Circuit. Timms was in custody at Butner, completing a 100 month sentence for soliciting and receiving child pornography by mail, when the government filed a certificate to commit him. At the time the certificate was filed, the Comstock case, the first challenge to the federal sexually dangerous commitment scheme, was pending before the Fourth Circuit. The hearing on the merits of his case was therefore put on hold. The District Court in Comstock had found the statutory scheme unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress lacked authority to enact it, and the Fourth Circuit later upheld that decision. The United States Supreme Court reversed, upholding the authority of Congress to enact the statute under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution. United States v. Comstock, 130 S.Ct. 1949, 176 L.Ed.2d 878 (2010). Upon remand and then re-appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined in Comstock II that the statute did not violate the due process clause by requiring a court to find by clear and convincing evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, that the individual is a sexually dangerous person. United States v. Comstock, 627 F.3d 513 (4th Cir. 2010), cert. denied, 131 S.Ct. 3026, 180 L.Ed.2d 865 (June 20, 2011). …