Texas Judge Rules Civil Commitment Statute Unconstitutional

The U.S. criminal justice system is based on the principle that the state may not impose a criminal punishment on a person until they have been convicted of an offense. The Bill of Rights provides several important safeguards, including a requirement of due process, a right to counsel and trial by jury, and a prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. Despite all of this, the system has come to include numerous features that arguably extend beyond reasonable punishment based on an adjudication of guilt. A Texas judge ruled in late 2015 that the state’s system of civil commitment, which provides for the continued confinement of people convicted of certain sexual offenses after the completion of their prison sentences, is unconstitutional. An appellate court order quickly suspended the ruling, and the case awaits further action.

The term “civil commitment” can refer to several types of proceedings, some of which have long histories in this country. Courts can order someone with severe mental illness into treatment if they conclude that a person is a danger to themselves or the public. Concerns over due process rights and other issues have led to numerous reforms, and involuntary commitments today are usually limited to a short period of time in order to stabilize and evaluate a person.

The civil commitment system at issue in Texas was created in 1999 to address “a small but extremely dangerous group of sexually violent predators” with “a behavioral abnormality that is not amenable to traditional mental illness treatment modalities,” who pose an ongoing threat to the public. Tex. Health & Safety Code § 841.001. The statute directs the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to identify prisoners convicted of certain “sexually violent offenses” who could be “repeat sexually violent offender[s].” Id. at § 841.021(a). The state may file a civil petition seeking a determination that the person is a sexually violent predator.

If the state meets its burden, the person is placed on civil commitment, which includes restrictions on where the person can live, participation in treatment programs, and the use of a tracking device. All of these requirements begin after the person has completed the punishment imposed in an earlier criminal proceeding, and all are based on possible future acts, not prior acts.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of civil commitment programs when their purpose is to treat the person rather than to continue their punishment. Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997). The Texas Legislature made multiple changes to the civil commitment program during the 2015 session, but the program remains the subject of numerous criticisms, including inadequate due process protections.

An appellate panel rejected a constitutional challenge to the program in late 2014. In re Commitment of May, No. 09-13-00513-CV, slip op. (Tex. App.—Beaumont, Dec. 11, 2014). One year later, the same defendant went before a judge in Montgomery County, who ruled that the program violates the Constitution and ordered the defendant released.

The Court of Appeals quickly suspended the ruling in an order issued under the same case number. The Texas Supreme Court denied a petition for review in April 2016, so the case now awaits a final ruling from the appellate court.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified white-collar crime attorney in West Texas, has defended people against charges of alleged criminal conduct in state and federal courts for more than two decades. Contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled criminal defense advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Court Vacates Guilty Plea in Minor Marijuana Case that Resulted in Twenty-Year Prison Sentence, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 9, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Order Finding Restrictive Bail Provision Unconstitutional, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 2, 2016

Habeas Corpus Petition in Infamous Texas Criminal Case Asserts “Actual Innocence”, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2015


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