A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

By Burt Rose

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On July 16, 2012, the UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT decided the case of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellant v. SEAN ROBERT FRANCIS, Appellee, No. 12-1205, an appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

This case began with the government’s initiation of civil commitment proceedings against Francis. The government certified that Francis, who had numerous criminal convictions based on his repeated conduct of placing threatening and obscene telephone calls to random females, was a “sexually dangerous person” within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 4248. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the district court determined

that Francis was not eligible for commitment because the government failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Francis would have serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct if released.

The statutory provisions that permit civil commitment for sexually dangerous individuals are set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 4247-4248, which are part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, and which provide that individuals in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who are sexually dangerous may be committed civilly after the expiration of their federal prison sentences. A “sexually dangerous person” is defined as one “who has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation and who is sexually dangerous to others.” An individual is sexually dangerous to others if he “suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder as a result of which he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” The Attorney General or the BOP may initiate commitment proceedings by filing in the district court for the district in which the individual is confined a certification that the individual is sexually dangerous. The filing of such a certification stays the release of the individual from custody “pending completion of procedures,” including a full evidentiary hearing. After the hearing, if the district court concludes that the government proved by clear and convincing evidence that the individual is sexually dangerous, the court shall commit that individual to the custody of the Attorney General. Once committed, an individual remains confined until he is “no longer sexually dangerous to others.” 18 U.S.C. § 4248(e). A committed individual may seek periodic review of his confinement but no sooner than 180 days from the most recent determination by the district court. 18 U.S.C. § 4247(h).

On appeal, the government argued that the district court erred by failing to determine that Francis was likely to commit new offenses of a sexually violent nature. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s judgment because the lower court did not clearly err in determining that the government failed to meet its burden of proving that Francis was a sexually dangerous person. The court emphasized that a civil confinement is to be limited to those whose mental illness renders them dangerous beyond their control. Of special concern to the court was the fact that Francis’ adjudicated sex offenses included only crimes that did not involve physical contact with victims. In addition, Francis had not made any new cellphone calls since his prior release.

The Free Student Research Center is now OPEN. It will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9AM to 3PM. The Free Student Research Center is available for use by attorneys who are current members of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section and who are court-appointed to the case for which they seek research (either state or CJA!). The Free Student Research Center is located in the Jack Myers Memorial Lounge on the Third Floor of the CJC.

You may make a research request in person or via the Criminal Justice Section website at http://www.philadelphiabar.org/page/CJResearch?appNum=1

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