CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Previewing the Coming Term (Part 12): United States v. Comstock

[This is the twelfth in a series of posts by CrimProf’s graduate fellow, Peter Stockburger (University of San Diego Class of 2009), previewing the criminal law and procedure cases scheduled for argument in the U.S. Supreme Court this coming term. Peter excerpts and paraphrases the briefs of the parties and the petition for certiorari to provide an overview of the case and the advocates’ arguments. Links to the briefs appear at the end of the summary.]

Case: United States v. Comstock
Docket No.: 08-1224
Oral Argument Date: not yet assigned

Issue:  Whether Congress had the constitutional authority to enact 18 U.S.C. 4248, which authorizes court-ordered civil commitment by the federal government of (1) "sexually dangerous" persons who are already in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, but who are coming to the end of their federal prison sentences, and (2) "sexually dangerous" persons who are in the custody of the Attorney General because they have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Factual and Procedural History:  This case consists of five civil-commitment proceedings that were initiated by the United States in the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.  The United States instituted proceedings against each of the five respondents (Comstock, Revland, Matherly, and Vigil) pursuant to § 4248 in November and December 2006.  At that time, each respondent was scheduled to complete a prison term.  The fifth respondent, Catron, was indicted in 2004 on four counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor under the age of 12, and one count of abusive sexual conduct.  He was found incompetent to stand trial, and was committed for evaluation.  The government subsequently initiated civil-commitment proceedings against him under 18 U.S.C. § 4246, which were then transferred via a proceeding under § 4248.

Each of the five respondents moved to dismiss their respective civil-commitment proceedings on various constitutional grounds.  On September 7, 2007, the district court granted their motions to dismiss in a single opinion, rejecting the government’s arguments that § 4248 commitment proceedings are civil rather than criminal.  The district court held § 4248 to be unconstitutional on two grounds: (1) it is beyond Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper clause; and (2) it violates the requirements of procedural due process because it requires the government to prove the commission of prior acts or attempts to engage in sexually violent conduct of child molestation by clear and convincing evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court of appeals affirmed, holding that § 4248 is unconstitutional on its face because it exceeds Congress’s enumerated powers “to confine a person solely because of asserted ‘sexual dangerousness’ when the Government need not allege (let alone prove) that this ‘dangerousness’ violates any federal law.” 

Summary of Petitioner’s Argument:  No merit brief filed yet.

Summary of Respondent’s Argument:  No merit brief filed yet.

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