US v. Comstock: Sexually Violent Offenders can be Held Indefinitely

US v. Comstock: Sexually Violent Offenders can be Held Indefinitely

In U.S. v. Comstock, the Supreme Court held that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates that are considered “sexually dangerous”, even after their prison terms are complete.  In overruling the lower courts decision, the court determined that the statute is a “necessary and proper” exercise of federal authority when Congress enacted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, authorizing civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.

In order to meet the definition of “sexually dangerous”, there must be clear and convincing evidence that, because of a mental disease or defect, the prisoner, if released, would have serious difficulty refraining from sexually violate conduct or child molestation, and there must be a showing that neither the state in which he was confined, nor the state in which he was tried is willing to accept custody over him.

The main issue in the case what whether the Constitution grants Congress the power to issue civil commitments.  Under the 10th Amendment, the states are reserved any power that have not been granted to the federal government, either specifically or impliedly.  Implied powers arise when the federal government must take certain actions that are “necessary and proper” to effectuate one of the express powers given.

One of the express powers given to Congress is the power to imprison those convicted of federal crimes, and to establish a system of criminal justice to punish offenders.  The petitioners in Comstock argued, however, that the relevant Act is only applicable after completion of their applicable sentence, and in some cases a finding of sexual violence warranting increased confinement may arise out after a conviction for a crime that was not sexual in nature.  However, the Court determined that the power to confine prisoners in the first place also carried the implied power to take account of other safety issues regarding their release back into society.  It cited, for example, the power of the federal government to maintain custody over a prisoner who has communicated a disease that threatens others.

U.S. v. Comstock, 2010 WL 1946729.