A divided Washington state Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday that makes it easier for sexually violent predators confined to the state’s Special Commitment Center to seek their release.
The 5-4 ruling broadens the criteria under which people civilly committed to the center on McNeil Island can request a trial to determine whether they should remain detained.
Deciding a Pierce County case, the majority declared unconstitutional two 2005 legislative amendments to the state’s sexually violent predator law.
The amendments said people deemed predators must convince a judge that a “physiological or treatment-based change” invalidated their designation as a sexually violent predator before they could request a trial seeking release.
A physiological change could include something like a stroke or dementia that “renders the committed person unable to commit a sexually violent act,” according to one of the amendments.
David W. McCuistion challenged the amendments, saying they unlawfully constrained his right to due process.
McCuistion, a convicted rapist with a history of sex crimes dating to 1980, was confined to the SCC in 2004 as a sexually violent predator.
In 2006, he argued at his annual review hearing that he no longer met the definition of a sexually violent predator and asked that his case be sent to a jury for a decision. McCuistion said he’d matured while detained and presented testimony from an expert witness who said he no longer fit the definition of a sexually violent predator.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge James Orlando denied his request, and McCuistion appealed.
In writing for the majority, Justice Debra Stephens said the 2005 amendments went too far in restricting ways sexually violent predators could seek release.
“There is a multitude of ways in which a person might potentially cease to meet the definition of (a sexually violent predator), and, thus, cease to be detainable under the due process standard,” Stephens wrote.
One way might be to show convincing evidence that he or she no longer is a high risk to commit similar crimes, the majority opinion states.
Justices Gerry Alexander, Richard Sanders, Tom Chambers and James Johnson sided with Stephens. Justice Susan Owens wrote the dissent , which also was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Charles Johnson and Mary Fairhurst.
Owens argued that there already are several ways for people committed to the SCC to challenge their detention aside from requesting a trial. She also wrote that the majority’s decision will “inhibit the incentive of (sexually violent predators) to undergo treatment” while detained.
“It is vital for the Legislature to ensure that committed (sexually violent predators) are truly treated before their release into the community, as there is a great deal of literature discussing how recidivism rates for (sexually violent predators) are considerable lower when they have completed treatment programs,” Owens wrote.