by Hal Springer
Olympia, WA–The state Supreme Court in August 1993, upheld a unique
law that allows the indefinite lockup of sex predators for crimes they
The decision means 20 of Washington State?s most dangerous sex
offenders will remain behind bars in a special facility at the state
reformatory near Monroe.
A 21st inmate, Vance Cunningham of King County, was ordered released
from the prison?s Special Commitment Center on grounds the state had
failed to prove he was still dangerous.
The high court said the civil commitment provision of the
three-year-old Community Protection Act, passed amid outrage over several
heinous crimes by habitual offenders, did not violate a person?s right to
due process or other constitutional guarantees.
The law allows indefinite commitment of violent, predatory sex
offenders if a jury finds they are likely to re-offend based on their
records and a psychological profile showing a “mental abnormality” or
“In sum, we conclude that the overall statutory scheme presented in
the sexually violent predator portions of the act is constitutional,”
Justice Barbara Durham wrote in the 6-3 decision.
“We conclude that the law is civil rather than criminal and does not
violate the constitution,” she said. Joining her were Chief Justice Jim
Andersen, and Justices Bob Brachtenback, Jim Dolliver, Rich Guy and
Barbara Madsen. Justices Charles Johnson, Bob Utter and Charles Smith
Gerard Sheehan, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union,
one of the challengers of the law, said the state decision would be
appealed to the Federal courts if sufficient grounds could be found.
Supreme Court sources said a Federal appeal was expected.
One of those being held, Joseph Aqui of King County, already is
appealing the law in Federal court in Seattle. A hearing was scheduled
Wednesday before Justice Barbara Rothstein.
The state court on Monday turned down a separate appeal by Aqui
without comment. The state Supreme Court ordered Cunningham released on
grounds the state had shown no”recent overt act” and thus had failed to
prove he was dangerous.
Cunningham was sent to Monroe in 1991 by a King County Superior
Court jury. He was detained by authorities 4-1/2 months after his release
from prison. Cunningham?s record included four felony sexual assaults on
females in the past 10 years. He committed his first offense when he was
15, court documents showed.
The law also was challenged at the state level by Andre Brigham
Young. The high court said Young was being held legally, but said the
Superior Court could consider less restrictive alternatives. The court
said Young?s case met the definition of sexual predator under the law.
A King County Superior Court jury declared Young a predator in March
1991, after his release from prison for previous sex crimes. His record
included six felony rapes of adult women, some of whom he assaulted with
a knife after breaking into their homes, court documents showed. The
state had argued in two high court hearings that the community protection
law was rooted in state and Federal case law permitting society to
protect itself from dangerous people.
Before legislative passage, the measure had been compared to earlier
laws that allowed authorities to confine and treat tuberculosis patients
until they were well or a cure was discovered.
The civil commitment provision is the linchpin of the 1990 law
intended to get sex offenders off the streets. It refers to the prisoners
as patients. They receive counseling and therapy during their commitment.
In August 1993, the 27-bed Monroe unit held 21 men, officials said.
Twelve have been committed and nine are awaiting trial. All have
extensive records as violent and persistent offenders.
The commitment law won passage amid public outrage over the 1989
sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old Tacoma boy by Earl Shriner, a chronic
sex offender, the 1988 abduction-slaying of Diane Ballasiotes of Seattle
by parolee Gene Kane and the slayings of three young boys by Westley
Allan Dodd of Vancouver.
The 1990 Legislature approved the law at the recommendation of a
1989 citizen commission appointed by former Gov. Booth Gardner and headed
by King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng. Citizens from around the state
told the panel story after story of men for whom jail was no deterrent,
men who were released only to rape and even kill again.
Several experts on sex crimes said there was no known treatment for
most such offenders. That became an argument both for and against civil
Backers argued that society had the right to take steps to protect
itself from such men once they emerged from prison. Critics said the law
was clearly unconstitutional, and some argued for far tougher sentences
Reprinted by permission of the Associated Press