Supreme Court Rules Government Can Hold Citizens Indefinitely If They Are Deemed Sexually Dangerous

The U.S. Supreme Court has given the federal government sweeping new authority to hold people indefinitely — even after the completion of their sentences — if they find the individuals to be “sexually dangerous.” Notably, it is a reversal of the nation’s most conservative court of appeals — the Fourth Circuit — which ruled that Congress could not impose such an open-ended denial of liberty. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan argued for such authority, here. In the decision below written by Justice Stephen Breyer in United States v. Comstock, only two conservative justices dissented: Thomas and Scalia.

Four men contested their confinement after serving their prison terms for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor.

Thomas viewed the issue not in terms of due process but states rights. He objected to the sweeping view of the “necessary and proper” clause to allow Congress to impose such confinement:

The historical record thus supports the Federal Government’s authority to detain a mentally ill person against
whom it has the authority to enforce a criminal law. But it provides no justification whatsoever for reading the Necessary and Proper Clause to grant Congress the power to authorize the detention of persons without a basis for federal criminal jurisdiction.

Here is the opinion: 08-1224.

50 thoughts on “Supreme Court Rules Government Can Hold Citizens Indefinitely If They Are Deemed Sexually Dangerous”

  1. Mike A,

    I appreciate your concern about a slippery slope but don’t make a fallacy of distribution either. Because one law is hard on manifestly dangerous people should be only a concern if their due process rights are violated. I would be fully in your corner if this law didn’t seem to have adequate safeguards against it’s misuse. That being said, the slippery slope is and always should be a concern and the watchword when it comes to individual civil and human rights.

  2. Mike, I agree. The logic works just as well for other violent crime–we just haven’t (yet?) characterized a propensity to commit other specific violent crimes as their own particular psychiatric disorders. This precedent could certainly expand in that direction, and political expediency will make sure it never gets curtailed by the legislature (no one wants to be painted as being soft on crime or helping rapists).

  3. I have read many well-reasoned opinions on all sides of this issue. However, I can’t fight the conclusion that the decision is both wrong and dangerous. I believe it is wrong because it relies upon an artificial and internally illogical construct. On the one hand, we are incarcerating a person for willingly committing a criminal offense. Upon the conclusion of the imposed sentence, we effectively switch gears, abandoning the premise that the previous conduct was legally criminal, and urging instead that the incarcerated person suffers from a mental illness so severe that his release will put others at risk due to the person’s inability to control the urges that brought him into the criminal justice system in the first place. I understand that mental illness alone does not support an insanity defense, but if a person is truly incapable of refraining from sexual assault when the opportunity arises, why is he imprisoned in the first instance rather than committed to a psychiatric facility? In other words, can it not be argued that a prisoner whose cofinement is continued under the statute should never have been imprisoned? And if one possesses a sufficient grasp on reality to have knowingly committed an act which he had the ability to avoid, why is not the completion of his sentence the end of the matter? Since when do we require a prisoner to express an appreciation of the evil nature of his conduct and perform an act of contrition as a condition of release? Which leads me to my second concern.

    We know from published recidivism rates that most convicts commit additional offenses following their release from prison. Therefore, we know that a majority of those freed every day remain a risk to society. How long will it be before someone has the bright idea of extending the reach of the confinement statute to other classes of crimes or offenders? Is there not a risk in adopting as public policy the acceptability of utilizing mental institutions to serve as post-incarceration facilities for those whose crimes society deems particularly abhorrent from time to time? Does anyone believe that there will not come a point when supporters of this policy propose its application to political offenses? Or am I simply lapsing into unfounded hyperbole? I trust neither the motives of the proponents of this statute nor the “experts” who will quickly form the cottage industry responsible for its implementation.

  4. Bucky,

    When you have seen some of the children that have been abused by the “Parent” of “Boyfriend” like skull fractures, cigarette burn, putting them in oil, hot bath water and they are the only one around the child. I am sorry, but my repulsion mechanism goes into effect.

  5. Buckeye, the legal recourse tends to be fighting to get DNA analyzed (if there was any and it hasn’t been lost or destroyed) after years in prison, usually with prosecutors fighting to prevent it. I have recently read of some people who lied about sexual assaults being prosecuted, but I don’t think it’s very common.

    Anonymously yours, from my friend’s experience, I would agree that there are a lot of people in prison for rapes that didn’t occur. One man he encountered in prison was serving life after a psychologist brought back his adult daughter’s “memories” of him supposedly sexually assaulting her when she was two years old. This is akin to the way children are manipulated in some molestation cases to make accusations that never happened. I can certainly understand why you didn’t want to take those kinds of cases, but unless you believe that all accused child molesters are guilty (though all rapists are not), wouldn’t it be more appropriate to suspend your desire to execute them until after they are convicted? This is precisely the problem we face in finding the truth in these cases: our loathing of the crime is so strong that we assume the accused is guilty and the accuser couldn’t be lying. Unfortunately, sometimes we are wrong.

  6. Is there no legal recourse against false accusations of either rape or child molestations? If not, why not? Do these perjurers face no penalties?

  7. All joking aside, I am beginning to wonder if pedophilia might be called a sexual preference separate from both heterosexuality and homosexuality.

  8. What you said is very true. I have a friend that was molested by their pediatrician and no one believed him and nothing happened to the doctor.

  9. For years, sexual abuse was kept quietand no one was prosecuted. Unfortuantely, that has left us with no usersatnding about what to do once we have people who’ve been convicted. All of the remedies tend to still revolve around the sterotype of the scary stranger awhen, in fact, most abuse involves known and trusted people, including family members.

  10. The real (overlooked) story from yesterday’s Supreme Court’s activity is the decision in Graham v Florida.

Comments are closed.