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

United States v. Timms, 664 F.3d 436 (4th Cir. 2012)

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. § 4248 permitting civil commitment of sexually dangerous persons does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. 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. § 4247(a)(5).

The Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, 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).

When his case finally came forward for hearing before the District Court after the Comstock I and II decisions, Timms argued that the statutory scheme violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The District Court agreed, relying on Baxstrom v. Herold, 383 U.S. 107 (1966) that held that the government cannot provide less protection during civil commitment proceedings for prisoners who are completing there sentences than for nonprisoners. The district court reasoned that the federal government has no authority to commit sexually dangerous persons who are not in prison, and therefore individuals in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons are not being treated similarly with sexual predators in the community.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first determined that it had to decide whether to apply a strict scrutiny standard of review, as Timms argued, or the generally applicable rational basis standard.. Timms relied on Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71 (1992) and Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979) that recognized that civil commitment constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty. However, the 4th Circuit found that these cases were decided on due process grounds, not equal protection, and the Supreme Court, despite being provided an opportunity to do so, never expressly established a heightened standard of review. As a general rule, the Court held that legislation is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Following the First Circuit decision in United States v. Carta, 592 F.3d 34 (1st Cir. 2010), deciding this very same issue, the Court held that the generally-applicable standard is thus rational basis.

The Fourth Circuit next turned to the Equal Protection issue. Under the Equal Protection Clause, all persons similarly situated must be treated alike. The Court held that Congress had a rational basis for subjecting sexually dangerous persons in BOP custody to civil commitment. The Court found that the scope of the federal government’s authority for civil commitment differs so much from a state’s authority that there is a rational basis for the distinction Congress drew. Congress rationally limited its scope to sexually dangerous persons within BOP custody based on Congress’ limited police power and the federal interest in protecting the public from reasonably foreseeable harm from such persons.

Found in DMHL Volume 31 Issue 2