Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In re Van Orden[1]

Opinion handed down December 16, 2008
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Missouri Supreme Court held that the “clear and convincing evidence” burden of proof in civil commitment proceedings for sexually violent predators is constitutional. The Court found that the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which was required prior to the 2006 amendment to Missouri’s Sexually Violent Predator Act, is inappropriate for a civil commitment proceeding.[1]

I. Facts and Holding[2]

Richard Wheeler and John Van Orden, appellants, had each previously committed a sexually violent offense and were subsequently incarcerated. The state petitioned for civil commitment of both offenders as sexually violent predators (SVPs) under Missouri’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVP Act).[3] Wheeler and Van Orden appealed their orders, arguing that the SVP Act is unconstitutional.[4] They argued that due process requires a person to be deemed an SVP “beyond a reasonable doubt,” rather than the statute’s standard of “by clear and convincing evidence.”[5] Wheeler and Van Orden argued that the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is constitutionally required because the commitment proceedings affected a fundamental liberty interest.[6] The court held that the “clear and convincing evidence” standard is appropriate for SVP civil commitment proceedings and affirmed the trial court orders of commitment for both Wheeler and Van Orden. Concurring and dissenting opinions were filed.

II. Legal Background

The Missouri SVP Act[7] establishes the procedures for the civil commitment of persons deemed “sexually violent predators.” For a person to qualify as an SVP, the state must prove that the person meets two statutory requirements: a person must (1) suffer from a mental abnormality making the person “more likely than not to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined…”; and (2) have been found guilty of a sexually violent offense,[8] or have been “committed as a criminal sexual psychopath.”[9] Commitment proceedings begin prior to release from a state prison or mental health facility, upon review by a psychologist, with notice given to the attorney general. If the attorney general and a multidisciplinary team confirm the psychologist’s findings of SVP status, the attorney general files a petition for commitment.

A person must qualify as an SVP “by clear and convincing evidence” for an order of civil commitment to be granted. The 2006 amendments to § 632.495 of the Missouri SVP Act changed the burden of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “clear and convincing evidence,” and was the basis of both appellants’ arguments on appeal.

In civil cases involving a fundamental right or liberty, due process requires the burden of proof to be “clear and convincing evidence.”[10] In comparison, criminal proceedings require proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” as the prospect of incarceration is viewed as the greatest encroachment on fundamental liberties.[11] The United States Supreme Court held in Addington v. Texas that the “clear and convincing evidence” standard is a suitable burden of proof for civil commitment proceedings.[12] The Addington court reasoned that the higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard was not required in such proceedings because the state was not acting punitively, there were opportunities for review, and psychological diagnoses were often too uncertain to meet a higher burden of proof.[13]

The Missouri Supreme Court relied on Addington in reaching its decision. It also emphasized that the proceedings are civil, not criminal, in nature, because they are used to assess mental abnormalities that could endanger society.[14] The SVP Act adds statutory protections to those civilly committed, such as yearly reviews and the opportunity to file a petition for release at any time during confinement.[15]

III. Commentary

Debate over SVP Acts has often focused on whether the civil commitment proceedings are civil in fact and effect. Those opposing the lesser “clear and convincing evidence” standard advocate for the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard due to the potential ramifications of such proceedings, including the possibility of indefinite commitment. The dissenting opinion in the instant case promoted the higher burden of proof because “the text of the law and the reality of its application reveal a process whereby the state exercises the power to impose a permanent, punitive restraint on individual liberty.”[16]

Other courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have analyzed the purpose and/or effect of other SVP statutes and the actual treatment civilly committed persons receive, in determining whether the statute is punitive in nature and therefore should require proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”[17] Proponents of the “clear and convincing” standard focus on the civil characterization of the proceedings, as well as the societal benefits of confining dangerous SVPs as a means of protecting the public, when supporting a lower burden of proof.[18]

- Meghan E. Lewis

[1] In re Van Orden, 271 S.W.3d 579 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 632.480 et seq. (2000).
[4] Wheeler and Van Orden also appealed their respective civil commitment orders on the grounds of failure to strictly comply with the statutory requirements. Van Orden, 271 S.W.3d at 582. Wheeler also appealed on the grounds that the trial court erred in failing to define “clear and convincing evidence” in the jury instructions and admittance of certain evidence. Id.
[5] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 632.485(1).
[6] Van Orden, 271 S.W.3d at 584-85. They also argued that other states require the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Id. at 585.
[7] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 632.480 et seq.
[8] Or, the defendant could be found not guilty by reason of mental disease and still meet the statutory requirement for forced civil commitment. Id. at § 632.480(5)(a).
[9] Id. at § 632.480(5)(b).
[10] Van Orden, 271 S.W.3d at 585.
[11] Id. (citing In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)).
[12] 441 U.S. 418, 423, 432-33 (1979).
[13] Id. at 427-431.
[14] Van Orden, 271 S.W.3d at 585-86.
[15] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 632.498.
[16] Van Orden, 271 S.W.3d at 592 (J. Teitelman, dissenting).
[17] See, e.g., Allen v. Illinois, 478 U.S. 364 (1986); Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997); Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003); State v. Gragg, 137 P.3d 461 (Idaho Ct. App. 2005); In re Commtiment of W.Z., 801 A.2d 205 (N.J. 2002).
[18] See Michael Vitiello, Punishing Sex Offenders: When Good Intentions Go Bad, 40 Ariz. St. L.J. 651, 651-54 (2008); Douglas G. Smith, The Constitutionality of Civil Commitment and the Requirement of Adequate Treatment, 49 B.C. L. Rev. 1383, 1384-85 (2008).