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Massachusetts Supreme Court: Discharge From Civil Commitment 
Required When Examiners Conclude Defendant Is Not Sexually Dangerous

by Douglas Ankney

Following convictions for two counts of rape of a child in 1977, Wayne Chapman was sentenced to prison for a term of 15 to 30 years. But later that same year, Chapman was found to be a sexually dangerous person and committed to the Massachusetts Treatment Center for an indefinite term of one day to life.

In 1991, Chapman petitioned for release from civil commitment pursuant to G. L. c. 123A that was in effect at the time of his sentence and to be returned to ordinary confinement to serve the remainder of his original sentence. The judge granted his petition, and Chapman was returned to prison.

In 2004, when Chapman had one month remaining until his release from prison, the Commonwealth petitioned to have Chapman committed as a sexually dangerous person beyond the term of his criminal sentence. The petition was filed under the current version of G. L. c. 123A.

After a trial in 2007, Chapman was found to be a sexually dangerous person and was committed to the treatment center for an indeterminate period of one day to life.

In 2016, Chapman petitioned for release under G. L. c. 123A because both qualified examiners at the treatment center concluded he was no longer sexually dangerous. Chapman also was evaluated by a five-member community access board (“CAB”). Three CAB psychologists concluded Chapman remained sexually dangerous while two concurred he was no longer sexually dangerous. The Superior Court judge granted Chapman’s petition. But Chapman’s release was stayed until the resolution of this appeal by the Commonwealth.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts observed, “Liberty — the right of an individual to be free from physical restraint — is a fundamental right.” Matter of E.C., 92 N.E.3d 724 (Mass. 2018). “Laws in derogation of liberty must be narrowly tailored to further a compelling and legitimate government interest, and must be strictly construed, in order to comply with the requirements of substantive due process.” Id.

Because civil commitment is justified only to prevent future harm, a person may be deprived of the fundamental right to liberty only where the individual’s dangerousness is linked to a mental illness or abnormality that causes the individual to have serious difficulty in controlling his or her behavior. Kenniston v. Department of Youth Servs., 900 N.E.2d 852 (Mass. 2009). When the Commonwealth contends a prisoner is a sexually dangerous person, it may file a petition seeking to civilly commit the individual following release from custody. G. L. c. 123A, § 12 (a)-(b).

A judge then conducts a hearing to determine if probable cause exists to believe the person may be sexually dangerous. G. L. c. 123A, § 12(c). If the judge finds probable cause to believe the person is sexually dangerous, then the person is committed to the treatment center for a period not exceeding 60 days for the purpose of examination and diagnosis under the supervision of two qualified examiners. G. L. c. 123A, § 13(a).

Within 45 days, each qualified examiner must provide the court with a written report summarizing his or her diagnosis and stating whether in their professional opinion the individual is sexually dangerous. Id. The Commonwealth then has 14 days from the date the reports are filed to decide whether to petition the court for a trial. G. L. c. 123A, § 14(a).

The trial is to be held within 60 days of the Commonwealth’s filing the petition for trial. Id. But as a practical matter, such trials are held a year more after the petition is filed. During all this time, the individual is confined at the treatment center. And if the individual is determined to be sexually dangerous at the ensuing trial, he or she is committed to the treatment center for an indeterminate period of one day to life. G. L. c. 123A, § 14(d). Once committed, the individual may petition for discharge only once every twelve months. G. L. c. 123A, § 9. But it often takes years for the petition to be scheduled for trial, during which time the individual remains confined. Because of the length of time a person may be civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person (up to life) and because of the length of time a civilly committed individual is forced to await trial on his or her § 9 petition seeking discharge, the Court held in Johnstone, petitioner, 903 N.E.2d 1074 (Mass. 2009), that at least one of the two qualified examiners must opine that the individual is a sexually dangerous person. If neither of the qualified examiners concludes the individual is a sexually dangerous person, the Commonwealth “cannot rely upon other sources of potential expert evidence, such as the CAB’s opinion that the petitioner is sexually dangerous, to meet its burden of proof at trial,” and the petitioner is entitled to release before trial. Id. To prolong a civil commitment where neither examiner opines that the individual is sexually dangerous would violate due process. Green, petitioner, 59 N.E.3d 1127 (Mass. 2016).  

The Court declined the Commonwealth’s request to overrule Johnstone as being incorrectly decided. The Court invoked the principle of stare decisis in reiterating its preference for following precedent because doing so “promotes evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” Shiel v. Rowell, 101 N.E.3d 290 (Mass. 2018). 

Since neither of the qualified examiners determined that Chapman continued to be sexually dangerous, he was entitled to discharge without awaiting a trial on his petition. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment allowing his petition for discharge from civil commitment. See: Chapman, petitioner, 482 Mass. 293 (2019). 

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