In In re Detention of Morgan, a schizophrenic pedophile petitioned the Washington Supreme Court to reverse a civil commitment order.  The court declined to do so.

To reach this unsurprising result, the Supreme Court had to determine that it was acceptable for the detained person to be found a sexually violent predator and deprived of liberty after he had been found incompetent to stand trial.  The court justified this determination by holding that full due process rights do not apply to determinations of sexually violent predators, given the compelling interest in protecting society. While few people will be upset by this result, the reasoning underlying the ruling is potentially troubling.

As I’ve noted before, courts do not like letting people out of detention if they are a sexual predator.  This is understandable. But this means that certain procedural blemishes must be glossed over to prevent people getting released with incurable and terrible tendencies.

In this case, the procedural problem may have been too large to cover up.   The court used the U.S. Supreme Court’s Matthews v. Eldridge test to determine what procedural protections an accused sexually violent predator needs to receive by balancing the individuals interest versus the government’s interest.  It bears emphasis that the Matthews v. Eldridge test was first advanced to figure out whether Social Security payments could be cut off prior to a hearing.  Now, the test has taken a life of its own and was used to keep a prisoner in Gitmo without a criminal trial.  See Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.  It’s not surprising that its used in this context, but it is disheartening that an American’s freedom gets the same protection as a couple of disability payments.

Even applying Matthews v. Eldrige, the right to be competent during an adjudication for one’s freedom is so ingrained in American principles of justice that both the detainee’s liberty interest and the value of this fundamental procedural safeguard should swamp the government’s interest in a quick determination that the detainee is a sexually violent predator.  This is especially so because an incompetent person accused of being a sexually violent predator isn’t going to be walking the streets until the hearing, he will be under watch in a mental institution.

The detainee is by all accounts not the sort of person who should be let out of confinement anytime soon.  The State will easily be able to show that he should stay on McNeil Island and away from the rest of society.  But it is much more than a procedural nicety for the accused person to be competent during the proceeding that takes away his or her liberty.

Society has made the choice to sequester dangerous and sexually violent individuals from the rest of society.  At some point, the court will need to decide whether it is going to sequester its sexually violent predator “quasi-criminal” jurisprudence from the rest of Washington law or whether it will let some of these problematic rulings bleed over to criminal trials.