Olympia - January 17, 2001 - The United States Supreme Court today held that a Washington civil-commitment law designed to protect the public and provide treatment for violent sexual predators is constitutional even if the law is applied to individuals in a manner that is punitive.
The court majority found that the treatment of a convicted rapist at the state’s Special Commitment Center can’t be used as grounds to overturn Washington’s civil-commitment law for sexually violent predators.
"In its decision today, the Supreme Court agreed with us that the treatment of an individual in civil commitment can’t make an otherwise constitutional civil law invalid," Attorney General Christine Gregoire said. "We are pleased the court reached a conclusion that recognizes the Legislature’s right to protect its citizens and also to provide appropriate treatment for sexual predators."
The decision came in a case filed by Andre Brigham Young, a rapist who was civilly committed under the Sexually Violent Predator Law in 1990. The law, the first of its kind in the country, was passed by the Legislature earlier the same year. It is intended to protect the public from sexual violence, while providing treatment for persons who suffer from disorders that make them likely to commit future sexually violent acts.
In his suit, Young claimed that allegedly punitive conditions at Washington’s Special Commitment Center convert the state’s civil statute into a criminal law. He argued that violates the Constitution by punishing him more than once for the same crimes.
In today’s Supreme Court opinion, the Court held that Young would be entitled to sue if he believes punitive conditions exist at the Commitment Center, but that the law itself remains a valid civil law.
A 1997 U.S. Supreme Court opinion upheld the constitutionality of a Kansas civil-commitment law that was virtually identical to Washington’s sexual predator statute. Today’s decision concerned only the manner in which such laws are applied to individuals.
The opinion reverses a decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that Young was entitled to a hearing to demonstrate that the commitment law was criminal in nature, based on the allegedly punitive conditions at the Special Commitment Center.
The decision was 8-1, with Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting.