Fourth Circuit: Catch-All Statute of Limitations Does Not Apply to Civil Commitment of “Sexually Dangerous Persons”

US v. Edgar Searcy (No. 16-6833)

The appellant was convicted in 2003 for using interstate commerce to engage in sexual activity with a minor. He received a sentence of 180 months imprisonment. While he was incarcerated, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (18 U.S.C. § 4248). Among other things, this law provides a mechanism for civil commitment of individuals in federal custody who are deemed to be “sexually dangerous persons.” In 2015, as Searcy was nearing the end of his sentence, the Bureau of Prisons petitioned to have him civilly committed under §4248. Searcy moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that the action was commenced outside of the statute of limitations period. Time limits for brining civil actions are governed by 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a), which provides a “general, 4-year limitations period for any federal statute subsequently enacted without one of its own.”

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit rejects Searcy’s argument that the catch-all four-year limitation applies to 18 U.S.C. § 4248. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit notes that §4248 provides its own limitations period. The Court points out that the government may only seek to certify someone as a sexually dangerous person if the person is in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons.

Thus, civil commitment is not some indefinite threat unmoored in time. The statute imposes a clear start and end point during which the government must initiate civil commitment proceedings: the period of time in which that person is in custody of the federal government.

Judge Thacker’s concurring opinion raises another noteworthy point regarding the text of the statute. The statute requires the lower court to consider whether the individual “suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder, ” and as a result whether the individual “would have serious difficult in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” Judge Thacker notes that this analysis requires the court to determine the individual’s current mental state, and simultaneously their future risk. Judge Thacker feels that this analysis would be premature if the civil commitment action had to be brought within four years of an individual’s entry into BOP custody (and as a result, this could not have been what Congress intended when creating the procedure). For individuals serving lengthy sentences, Judge Thacker reasons that the civil commitment action would only be proper as they approach their possible release date, so that the court can consider their attempts at rehabilitation, as well as their current mental state.


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