Civil Commitment Case Law

The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly "recognized that civil commitment for any purpose constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty that requires due process protection." (Addington v. Texas (1979) 441 U.S. 418, 42.) Penal Code Section 1026.5, subdivision (b), and other similarly worded commitment statutes have been recently challenged in several cases before the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court. The decisions in those cases establish the conditions in which a person may be civilly committed. In Kansas v. Hendricks (1997) 521 U.S. 346, 371, the court found that the commitment provisions of the Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act (Kan. Stat. Ann. 59-29a01 et seq.; SVPA) satisfied due process requirements. The commitment provision required that a person had been convicted of or charged with a sexually violent offense, suffered from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that made them likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence, and a finding of dangerousness either to one's self or to others. (Hendricks, at p. 357.) The court noted that "a finding of dangerousness, standing alone, is ordinarily not a sufficient ground upon which to justify indefinite involuntary commitment. We have sustained civil commitment statutes when they have coupled proof of dangerousness with the proof of some additional factor, such as 'mental illness' or 'mental abnormality.' " (Id. at p. 358.) These additional statutory requirements "limit involuntary civil confinement to those who suffer from a volitional impairment rendering them dangerous beyond their control." (Ibid.) Following Hendricks, the California Supreme Court analyzed the commitment provision of the California SVPA, Welfare and Institutions Code section 6600 et seq., in Hubbart v. Superior Court (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1138. For commitment under the California SVPA, a "sexually violent predator" must suffer from "a diagnosed mental disorder that makes the person a danger to the health and safety of others in that it is likely that he or she will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior." (Welf. & Inst. Code, 6600, subd. (a)(1).) Like the Kansas SVPA, the California SVPA required a finding of dangerousness linked to a finding of "a currently diagnosed mental disorder characterized by the inability to control dangerous sexual behavior." (Hubbart, supra, 19 Cal.4th at p. 1158.) The court found that "due process requires an inability to control dangerous conduct, and does not restrict the manner in which the underlying impairment is statutorily defined." (Ibid.) Because the commitment provision in the California SVPA was so similar to the provision upheld in the Kansas SVPA, the court also upheld the California SVPA commitment statute. (Hubbart, at p. 1157.) The Kansas SVPA again came before the United States Supreme Court in Kansas v. Crane (2002) 534 U.S. 407. The Kansas Supreme Court had interpreted Hendricks as requiring a dangerous individual to be completely unable to control his or her behavior before being civilly committed. (Crane, at p. 411.) The court disagreed, holding that "Hendricks set forth no requirement of total or complete lack of control. Hendricks referred to the Kansas Act as requiring a 'mental abnormality' or 'personality disorder' that makes it 'difficult, if not impossible, for the dangerous person to control his dangerous behavior.' " (Ibid.) Furthermore, the court recognized "that in cases where lack of control is at issue, 'inability to control behavior' will not be demonstrable with mathematical precision. It is enough to say that there must be proof of serious difficulty in controlling behavior." (Id. at p. 413.) After Crane, the California Supreme Court had another opportunity to review the California SVPA in People v. Williams (2003) 31 Cal.4th 757. In that case, the defendant had been committed under the SVPA. (Id. at p. 759.) The jury received instructions that did not include an instruction to find that the defendant had serious difficulty controlling his behavior. (Ibid.) However, the court found the language of the instruction "inherently encompasses and conveys to a fact finder the requirement of a mental disorder that causes serious difficulty in controlling one's criminal sexual behavior." (Ibid.) Even if an instructional error had occurred, the court found the evidence presented at trial so overwhelming that "no rational jury could have failed to find he harbored a mental disorder that made it seriously difficult for him to control his violent sexual impulses." (Id. at p. 760.) The lack of a "control" instruction was deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. (Ibid.) Two years later, the California Supreme Court considered whether the extended detention scheme under Welfare and Institutions Code section 1800 et seq. violated due process because it did not expressly require a finding that the person's mental impairment caused serious difficulty in controlling behavior. (In re Howard N. (2005) 35 Cal.4th 117 at p. 122.) The commitment statute at issue in Howard N. authorized extended detention of dangerous persons who are under the control of the Department of Youth Authority, and was very similar to section 1026.5, subdivision (b)(1) as they both contained a requirement of physical dangerousness to the public and mental deficiency, disorder or abnormality. The court concluded that the extended detention scheme under section 1800 "should be interpreted to contain a requirement of serious difficulty in controlling dangerous behavior." (Howard N., at p. 132.) The court further explained, "we can preserve the constitutionality of the extended detention scheme by simply interpreting the scheme to require not only that a person is 'physically dangerous to the public because of his or her mental . . . deficiency, disorder, or abnormality,' but also that the mental deficiency, disorder, or abnormality causes him to have serious difficulty controlling his dangerous behavior. This aspect of the person's condition must be alleged in the petition for extended commitment ( 1800), and demonstrated at the probable cause hearing ( 1801) and any ensuing trial ( 1801.5)." (Id. at p. 135.) Soon after Howard N. was decided, the Court of Appeal addressed the same commitment statute in In re Michael H. (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 1074. In that case, the juvenile court had ordered the defendant's commitment extended for two years after a court trial. (Id. at p. 1079.) However, the petition seeking to extend the defendant's commitment did not contain allegations that the potential committee's mental deficiency, disorder, or abnormality caused him serious difficulty in controlling his behavior. (Id. at p. 1080.) As a result, the court found the petition insufficient under the requirements established in Howard N., and the order of commitment was reversed and the case was remanded to the juvenile court. (Id. at p. 1091.)