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September 6, 2012

Fourth Circuit finds clearly erronoues district court findings on federal sex offender civil commitment

The Fourth Circuit has a lengthy and intricate opinion concerning a sex offender federal civil commitment proceeding today in US v. Wooden, No. 11-7226 (4th Cir. Sept. 6, 2012) (available here). Here is how it begins and ends:

Approximately three months before Walter Wooden was to be released from federal prison, the government sought to commit him as a "sexually dangerous person," 18 U.S.C.A. § 4248(a) (West Supp. 2012), under the civil-commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (the "Act"), Pub. L. No. 109–248, 120 Stat. 587 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 18 and 42 U.S.C.A.). After an evidentiary hearing, the district court held that the government failed to prove Wooden suffered from pedophilia and failed to prove he would have serious difficulty refraining from re-offending. The court therefore dismissed the government’s petition and ordered Wooden released. The government appeals. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the district court’s order and remand for reconsideration of the government’s petition on the existing record.....

To summarize, we hold that the district court erred in its conclusion that the application of the Act to Wooden violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution. We also conclude that the record does not support the district court’s determination that Wooden does not "suffer[ ] from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder" because he no longer suffers from pedophilia, 18 U.S.C.A. § 4247(a)(6), nor does the record support the district court’s determination that Wooden would not have "serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released," id., and we hereby reverse those factual findings as clearly erroneous.

Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment dismissing the government’s petition seeking to commit Wooden, and we remand the matter to the district court for reconsideration.  On remand, the district court shall reconsider, on the basis of the existing record and in light of the questions about the district court’s original analysis and the concerns about the existing evidence raised in this opinion, whether Wooden is a sexually dangerous person within the meaning of the Act.

It is pretty rare to see a district court's detailed factual finding reversed as "clearly erroneous," but sex offender cases seem to have a way of bring out some legally rare events.

September 6, 2012 at 03:54 PM | Permalink


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It's not that rare when it's the government appealing. Show me the last time an appeals court found that a district court was clearly erroneous in finding for the government. Now THAT would be “pretty rare.”

Posted by: anon | Sep 6, 2012 4:21:03 PM

Doug and anon --

It's also "rare" for a district court to order the government to bear the enormous cost of a sex change operation, but neither one of you seemed to have a problem with that, instead urging careful consideration of the whole opinion -- an invitation notably absent here.

Of course whether the result here (or in the sex change case) is "rare" is unimportant. The question is whether it's correct. If there was any argument devoted to that in your discussion, I missed it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 6, 2012 4:37:15 PM

So we have an example of appellate court playing district court, just in the government's favor this time. Can't they just save everyone time and money and just enter an order directing the defendant to be civilly committed, thereby cutting the middleman out of the entire process?

Posted by: Guy | Sep 6, 2012 5:01:20 PM

well since i consider the entire so-called "sex offender civil comittment" sytem illegal on it's face. You know where i stand.

as for this!

"It is pretty rare to see a district court's details factual finding reversed as "clearly erroneous," but sex offender cases seem to have a way of bring out some legally rare events"

was doing pretty good till you got to the end!

should read!

It is pretty rare to see a district court's details factual finding reversed as "clearly erroneous," but sex offender cases seem to have a way of bring out COMPLETELY ILLEGAL RULINGS!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 6, 2012 5:53:45 PM

As surprising as it is, I actually agree with rodsmith on something.

Everyone likes to clammer about Kelo on one side or Citizens United on the other. Nobody looks at Comstock and says WTF! That is one of the worst opinions in the last decade or so bar none.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 6, 2012 7:36:00 PM

thanks matt. i did read the opinion and the individual involved is as the PC crowd likes to say mentally challenged. He is dangerous for children to be around. IF they had used the NORMAL LEGAL civil comitment sytem that has been in place for a 100 years he'd be locked up and we'd not be talking about it. But they percist in using the illegal "sex offender" only system!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 6, 2012 7:52:16 PM

rodsmith --

You're totally priceless on this blog. Every now and again, Doug will put up some SSRN piece that's impenetrable academic jargon from stem to stern, making me look frantically for something from you as an antidote.

Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't, but someone who just lays it on the line is a breath of fresh air.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 6, 2012 7:59:34 PM

Like I've always said, government appeals never lose. Hearing that an appeals court shot down a government appeal is like spotting a do-do bird in you laundry basket, it's so bizarre and weird that you don't believe it. Too bad homosexuals don't have the same kind of governmental immunity to prejudice: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2012/09/04/gay-couple-sues-continental-airlines-strapping-sex-toy-luggage/

Posted by: Havoc Johnson | Sep 7, 2012 7:31:10 AM

Just imagine the nightmare if Boyle was ever confirmed to the 4th circuit...a lenient pedophilia sentencer...factual finding reversed as "clearly erroneous"... good grief.

Posted by: DeanOeanO | Sep 7, 2012 7:49:54 AM

Bill, I share your instinct that the "whether the result here (or in the sex change case) is rare" less important than "whether it's correct." (I do not think it is "unimportant," and below I explain why I am surprised you use that adjective.) Sadly, a busy week has meant that I have not yet had time to read either opinion closely enough to reach my own independent view on this substantive front, but I very much welcome hearing your opinions (and those of others) after BOTH these opinions have been read.

The reason I urged folks to read the district court opinion in Kosilek before weighing in is because I suspected (rightly?) that the common first reaction to the ruling is "this must be wrong." That was my first reaction, but a (too quick) review of the start of the opinion gave me pause and prompted my recommendation that folks actually read at least some of Chief Judge Wolf's opinion before reaching this conclusion. (Tellingly, despite my suggestion, federalist was quick (1) to comment that one not need to read the Kosilek opinion to conclude the "result is preposterous" and (2) to misstate the key legal standard/issue in Kosilek. Federalist's comment confirmed my belief that it was useful to urge folks in that setting to take the time to read what Chief Judge Wolf wrote before reaching normative conclusions about his ruling's merits.)

In commenting on Wooden here, I likewise made no normative claim about the result, but merely made the (I think accurate) assertion that it is "pretty rare to see a district court's detailed factual finding reversed as clearly erroneous." Especially given your stated concerns about sentencing disparity in other settings, I am surprised and find curious that you deem rarity "unimportant" because such rarity might be strong evidence of disparity (which, of course, might be warranted or unwarranted on these facts). More importantly, I hoped my rarity comment would in fact encourage folks to read the Wooden opinion to make their judgments on whether the "pretty rare" ruling here seems right on the merits.

The fact that the Kosilek ruling is "rare" is obvious, though I do wonder how many prisoners (a) seek a sex change operation, with (b) a huge factual record on medical need. (Also, especially in light of Plata, I am not sure it is accurate to say it is "rare" for federal courts to order bold and costly relief for prisoners suing over a lack of constitutionally required medical care.) Meanwhile, I also wonder whether the average reader of this blog knows (a) how often parties (in both criminal and civil cases) claim a district court's findings were clearly erroneous, and (b) how uncommon it is that detailed factual rulings by a district court gets reversed under this standard.

I always appreciate your comments (and those of others on all sides of issues) which lead me to review and question whether and how my analysis and commentary reflects sustained hidden biases. But this time around and upon reflection, Bill, I think you may protest too much.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 7, 2012 9:53:49 AM

I am a note taker/reader at a small community college.

I am surprised that detainees under civil commitment have thus far refrained from doing what Attica's and Lucasville's inmates did: stage an insurrection. While I certainly do not advocate violence like hostage-taking or murder, I am surprised that no detainees have felt that civil commitment has given them nothing to lose anymore by rising up.

It took a long time for ghetto minorities to rise up until the mid-1960's and early 1970's with Wattts, Newark, et al. Maybe it is just a matter of time. My advice to the authorities: if you care about the welfare of the guards and staff who work your detention institutions, then give the detainees there hope so that they will behave well towards their keepers.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Sep 7, 2012 4:18:21 PM

Doug --

Your point is well taken. I was too hasty, and trying to make a point about the sex change case as much as this one. My somewhat snarky tone was uncalled for, and I apologize for it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 7, 2012 7:19:42 PM

Mr. Delzell --

Once inmates sense that the authorities can be intimidated by them, we are more likely, not less, to see the violence you say (not entirely convincingly) you don't want.

If inmates want to riot, what will happen is that they will be given the opportunity, shall we say, to reconsider the wisdom of their actions.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 7, 2012 7:24:03 PM

"Meanwhile, I also wonder whether the average reader of this blog knows (a) how often parties (in both criminal and civil cases) claim a district court's findings were clearly erroneous, and (b) how uncommon it is that detailed factual rulings by a district court gets reversed under this standard."

Actually, I don't know the numbers Doug. But I do that the DC is supposed to be the ultimate fact finder so overturning a judge on this score goes beyond saying the DJ was in error or even wrong and into the territory of saying he was bonkers or derelict in his duty; it's not a put down but a slam down. OTH, nothing when it comes to judges and sex surprises me anymore. I live in state where I can honestly say that 90% of the rulings form my state SC I agree with. Then a sex case comes along and all rationality and objectivity go flying out the windows. It said so much it's now trite but sex offenders are truly the witches of our day.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 7, 2012 7:57:50 PM

William --

If I recall, not too long ago, a group of inmates who had been civilly committed did stage an insurrection of sorts, though not a violent one. I seem to recall a large group of them threatened suicide over conditions and program practices.

Posted by: Guy | Sep 8, 2012 5:18:14 AM

Mr. Deizell, as well as insurrections caused by unjust and unfair sex offender laws, I have always wondered what effect the insanely long, harsh sentences have on men who might do "some" sexual harm to a child, but that man, as most men would never want to kill the child. However, after being overcome by temptation, and committing some act which may never do lasting harm to a child, begins to think about the penalties he faces and may decide to kill the child because she is a witness. It is my opinion that the overly harsh laws actually put children in more risk of being killed.

Posted by: dana | Sep 9, 2012 2:45:58 PM

dana --

A person of the kind you describe is unspeakably immoral, not to mention dangerous, and fully merits the execution any sane jury would order. To murder a child so that she is eliminated as a witness to the sex crime you just committed on her is the very definition of "the worst of the worst." Your fawning enthusiasm for such a creature is duly noted, however.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 9, 2012 8:10:55 PM

i think about that a lot too bill. The problem is figureing out just how MANY CHILDREN HAVE TO DIE! becasue we want to be anal aobut sex crimes. Just how many is it worth it to keep the continual illegal retroactive system of punishment and opression going. Becasue that is where we are heading. The state has made it that way. When you can get LIFE plus for patting a kid on the ass or take 10-20 with no registry AFTER or any other little goodie for just KILLING one... well it's not rocket science!

and yes i agree anyone who would kill a child to cover up a crime is as you say "the worse of the worse". but that just makes it more likely it WILL HAPPEN!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 10, 2012 1:17:00 AM

rodsmith (Sep 10, 2012 1:17:00 AM):

We are not "heading to" children dying, it has already happened and will continue to happen. We know that the Registries, and more so the idiotic laws/hysteria that they have enabled and promoted, are counterproductive. We know that they have directly led to retaliation that resulted in the murder of children (real children with names just like Megan, Jessica, etc.). I personally believe that it has led to retaliation that has caused the harm of hundreds of thousands of children. Some of the retaliation was intentional and some was not, but it was retaliation even if the person doing it didn't know it was. Exactly as experts predicted would happen.

But none of that matters to the people who support the Registries. It literally does not matter how many children die or are harmed. They are too arrogant and clueless to care. We've seen the same thing with the "war on drugs" in this country. It doesn't matter what the actual results are, the instigators of the war will continue their stupidity. Employees of the criminal governments, especially law enforcement, will never, ever say that what they are doing is counterproductive. They will never stop running propaganda campaigns to try to convince us all just how much we need them and just how much they are "helping" us.

So don't expect the Registries to stop murdering children. The whole Registries thing just sounds like too wonderful of a nanny big government idea and too many people get their jollies from it. The Registries aren't going anywhere and as long as they exist I will go out of my way to ensure they are worthless and spend time around a lot of children. I will also take actions to improve my family and friends' lives at the expense of people who support the Registries.

Posted by: FRegistryTerrorists | Sep 11, 2012 4:18:21 PM


The way I read dana's comment is that she was merely speculating (a speculation not original with her, by the way) that increased harshness of sex offender laws lead to more dead kids.

You, however, smear her with the assertion that she is has "fawning enthusiasm for such a creature" for, apparently, having the temerity to suggest a possible outcome of harsher laws.

How did Doug put it, again?

Posted by: Guy | Sep 12, 2012 2:20:47 PM

To summarize, we hold that the district court erred in its conclusion that the application of the Act to Wooden violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution.

Posted by: serviced apartments london | Nov 26, 2012 2:14:50 AM

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