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SJC Clarifies Timeframe for Sexually Dangerous Person Petitions

gavel-1238036Under Massachusetts G. L. c. 123A, § 12, if the Commonwealth has reason to believe a person convicted of a sex offense is likely to re-offend, it may file a petition in the Superior Court alleging the person is a “sexually dangerous person,” and request that the person be civilly committed. Once the petition for civil commitment as a sexually dangerous person is filed, a judge determines whether the Commonwealth’s allegations meet the standard of probable cause to believe the person is sexually dangerous. The person who is the subject of this petition must be provided notice and have an opportunity to appear and contest the allegations. Generally, the petitions for civil commitment as a sexually dangerous person are filed in the months leading up to the person’s release date from confinement.  If a finding of probable cause is made, the person has a right to a trial to determine if he is a sexually dangerous person. If a person is determined to be sexually dangerous after trial, he is then committed to a treatment center for an indefinite period.  This means that he could be committed for as little as one day or for the rest of his life.

In a recent case – Commonwealth v. Libby – the Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling clarifying the terms of a sexually dangerous person petition. Libby was convicted of a sex offense in 2002 and completed his sentence of incarceration shortly thereafter. In 2013, he was indicted on a different charge (failure to register). Unable to post bail, he was held in custody awaiting trial on the new charge. While he was in held in custody, the Commonwealth filed a sexually dangerous person petition, pursuant to G.L. c.123A, §12. Libby moved to dismiss the petition on the ground that he had already completed the sentence for the sex offense, was therefore not serving a sentence at the time the petition was filed, and thus the Commonwealth was not permitted to file the petition.   His motion to dismiss, however, was denied. Libby then sought relief pursuant to G. L. c. 211, §3, which allows the SJC to review trial court rulings prior to the disposition of a case in certain limited circumstances.

The SJC found that the Commonwealth’s sexually dangerous person petition against Libby had to be dismissed. The SJC found that at the time the petition was filed, Libby had already completed a sentence for the sexual offense and was in custody solely because he was unable to post bail in a pending criminal case. The Court “conclude[d] that the Commonwealth may file a [sexually dangerous person] petition … only where the [target of the petition] is in custody because of a criminal conviction, an adjudication as a delinquent juvenile or youthful offender, or a judicial finding that the person is incompetent to stand trial.” The Court went on to state that the Commonwealth may not file such a petition where, as in Libby’s case, “the defendant is in custody only because he is awaiting trial, unless a judge has found the defendant incompetent to stand trial.” The Court noted that a contrary conclusion, as recommended by the Commonwealth, “would raise serious practical problems that would complicate the already complex SDP petition procedure. Under the Commonwealth’s interpretation, an SDP petition could be filed against a person previously convicted of a sexual offense who is in custody awaiting trial, regardless of how minor the charge, even if the person has yet to appear at arraignment or is awaiting the arrival of family members to post bail. This could invite an unseemly race to file the SDP petition before the defendant posted bail, and might provide the Commonwealth with an incentive to delay the arraignment or hinder the posting of bail to allow it the time needed to file the petition. Moreover, the Commonwealth’s interpretation would mean that an SDP proceeding would likely occur at the same time as a criminal proceeding, and that an acquittal in the criminal case would not end the SDP proceeding. It would also mean that a defendant who was unable to afford bail would be more vulnerable to the filing of an SDP petition than a comparable defendant with the means to post bail.” Finally, the Court pointed out that “[i]f the defendant were to be convicted of the pending charge and sentenced to a period of incarceration, the Commonwealth … would not be barred from filing a new SDP petition against him prior to his release from incarceration.”

As stated above, a person who is found to be a sexually dangerous person following a petition under G. L. c. 123A, §12 faces a potential civil commitment for an indefinite period ranging from one day up to life. Therefore, there is a significant liberty interest at stake for any individual facing such a petition and mounting a strong defense is crucial. If you or a loved one is charged with a sex offense, or have been convicted of a sex offense and are potentially facing civil commitment, you will need an attorney who has the skills necessary to protect your rights and your future. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has extensive experience defending such cases and always fights for his clients to get the best outcome possible. Call him for a free consultation today.

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