The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently announced that, from July 20 2009 forward, judges will generally be required to issue rulings within 30 days of the completion of any civil commitment proceeding sought by the Commonwealth against someone previously convicted of rape or a sexual assault crime. On many occasions, when a person who has been convicted of rape or a crime involving sexual assault is nearing the end of his (or her) criminal prison sentence, a District Attorney’s office may seek a civil commitment of that prisoner, indefinitely, as a “sexually dangerous person (SDP)”. Prosecutors are allowed to do this under a specific statute, M.G..L. Chapter 123A, known among Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers as the “SDP statute.”
When a prosecutor moves for such a civil commitment, the District Attorney’s office seeking the commitment is essentially saying to a judge, “While this convict may have served out his criminal prison sentence, he (or she) remains a sexually dangerous person, and should not be released to the public, but committed civilly at a facility to treat sexually dangerous persons.” That civil commitment facility, by the way is almost always Bridgewater State Hospital. The court issued the ruling in the case of a man who had previously been convicted of child rape and indecent assault and battery on a child. Shortly before he was scheduled for release from prison in 2002, prosecutors moved to have him civilly committed to the Bridgewater facility. Superior Court Judge C. Brian McDonald heard the commonwealth’s request in 2004, but did not subsequently enter judgment in the state’s favor until 13 months later. In the meantime, the convict was held incarcerated at Bridgewater State Hospital.
The SJC affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that sufficient evidence had been presented to prove that the convict in question, a Joseph Blake, was a “sexually dangerous person” and also that the 13-month delay before the judge issued his decision did not violate Blake’s due process rights. However, the court went on to rule that the delay was “unacceptably long.” Consequently, the court announced that henceforth judges must make decisions in sexually dangerous person proceedings not later than 30 days after the end of trial, absent “extraordinary circumstances.”
The justices said that the new timeline adopted by the court would “accommodate the State’s legitimate interests in protecting society from sexual predators, while ensuring that a person held in the treatment center pending the outcome of a civil commitment hearing, (and) who is ultimately determined not to be sexually dangerous, is detained no longer than necessary.” Hence, the ruling provides no greater limitation on the state to seek to have a convict held civilly after his (or her) prison term, but speeds up the decision process. As a Massachusetts sex crimes lawyer and Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, I think this is a fair ruling. It preserve’s the Commonwealth’s legitimate interests in seeking to protect the public from persons who have been deemed to be “sexually dangerous”, but assures that defendants aren’t held unreasonably long while they await a decision.