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4th Circuit upholds civil commitment

RICHMOND, Va. — A law allowing the indefinite confinement of “sexually dangerous” federal inmates after their prison terms end does not violate their due process rights, an appeals court has ruled.

The unanimous ruling Monday by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision striking down the civil commitment provision of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

The appeals court previously upheld the lower court’s ruling that Congress overstepped its authority in passing the law, but that decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in May. The justices sent the case back to the 4th Circuit to consider the due process issue.

Five inmates at the Federal Correctional Institute in Butner, N.C., who were held for treatment after their prison terms ended challenged the law, which authorizes civil commitment if a court finds by “clear and convincing evidence” that a person committed or tried to commit a sex offense and remains sexually dangerous.

The inmates claimed the government should have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt — the same stringent standard imposed in criminal cases — before being allowed to hold them indefinitely. Failure to do so violates the due process clause of the Constitution, they said.

The appeals court disagreed, citing a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a Texas civil commitment law. In that case, the justices said that civil commitment “does not require the criminal law burden of proof,” appeals court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote.

The appeals court noted that the law requires the discharge of the committed person as soon as he or she is no longer a danger to others. Also, the person’s lawyer or guardian can petition for a discharge and renew the request every 180 days.

“These post-commitment procedures make for a striking contrast with the finality of criminal sentences,” Motz wrote.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice Department and the federal public defender’s office in Raleigh, N.C., which represented the inmates, declined to comment on the ruling.

President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which is named after the son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh. Along with the civil commitment provision, the law establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishment for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections.