Civil Commitment of Sexually Dangerous Individuals

In re Johnson, 2016 ND 29, 2016 WL 669398 (ND Feb. 18, 2016)

Release of an individual from civil commitment under the state’s sexually dangerous individual law ordered upon finding that the district court failed to cite on the record facts establishing by clear and convincing evidence that the offender “has a present serious difficulty controlling his behavior.”

Background: Jeremy Johnson was committed as a sexually dangerous individual in 2012, and in 2013, Johnson petitioned the court for discharge. Finding that Johnson was still a sexually dangerous individual, the district court continued his commitment; Johnson appealed and the North Dakota Supreme Court remanded the case for further findings of fact on the question of whether Johnson had difficulty controlling his behavior. On remand, the district court made additional findings and again issued an order continuing Johnson’s commitment. Johnson appealed the district court’s order continuing his commitment as a sexually dangerous individual, arguing that the court’s findings were insufficient to demonstrate that he had serious difficulty controlling his behavior.

Holdings: The Supreme Court of North Dakota concluded that the district court’s order and findings were insufficient and reversed the order continuing Johnson’s commitment, directing that Johnson be released from civil commitment. Specifically, the Supreme Court of North Dakota found that the district court had not put forward specific factual findings to support the legal conclusion that Johnson’s mental disorder involved serious difficulty controlling his behavior that sufficed to “distinguish a dangerous sexual offender whose disorder subjects him to civil commitment from the dangerous but typical recidivist in the ordinary criminal case.” When the district court fails to put forward such findings, it errs as a matter of law.

Notable Points:

Lack of progression in treatment is not sufficient: The Supreme Court of North Dakota made it clear that an actual finding of serious difficulty controlling behavior must be made in order to justify denial of a petition for discharge from civil commitment of a sexually dangerous individual. Specifically, this means that a court may not rely solely on evidence of lack of progression in treatment to prove that a committed individual has difficulty controlling his behavior—such lack of progress does not necessarily equate to a serious difficulty controlling behavior. Although the Supreme Court conceded that lack of progress in treatment “may indicate serious difficulty controlling behavior” it “decline[d] to infer one equals the other.” The State must present specific evidence (and the court must make a specific finding) regarding whether a defendant has serious difficulty controlling his behavior.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 1