In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kansas v. Hendricks. This case involved a challenge to a Kansas law, the Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA), which permitted the state to indefinitely confine repeat sex offenders who the state deemed a threat to society. In this case, Hendricks argued that the act violated due process, as well as the Constitution’s ban on double jeopardy and ex post facto laws. The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the act but revisited its decision in a separate case in 2001.
In May 1994, the Kansas legislature passed the SVPA, permitting the involuntary and indefinite confinement of sex offenders who were likely to commit additional violations in the future. More precisely, the law was targeted at repeat sex offenders who did not have a diagnosed mental illness. Existing Kansas law permitted the indefinite confinement of sex offenders who were diagnosed with a psychiatric illness; the SVPA would expand the involuntary confinement powers of the state, allowing the confinement of repeat offenders who had more loosely defined “mental abnormalities.”
To use the SVPA to prevent the release of a convict nearing the end of his sentence, the state had to establish three criteria. First, the individual had to be a repeat sex offender; second, the individual had to have a diagnosed mental abnormality; and finally, the individual had to be deemed a threat to society, owing to an inability to control his violent impulses. To determine if these criteria had been met, the law provided for a multistage assessment process, including a hearing, a medical evaluation, and a jury trial.
In 1994, 50-year-old Leroy Hendricks was convicted of “indecent liberties” with two boys and given a sentence of five to 20 years; he had previously been convicted of four sex crimes. After nearly 10 years in prison, Hendricks was set to be released to a halfway house in September 1994. To prevent his release, Kansas invoked the SVPA, making Hendricks the first individual to be subject to the law. During his subsequent trial, Hendricks admitted that he suffered from pedophilia and indicated that he could not control his violent sexual urges. The jury found that he posed a threat to society and ordered involuntary confinement, for an indefinite period.
Hendricks appealed the ruling in the Kansas Supreme Court; his defense argued that the act was unconstitutional for three reasons. First, the defense argued that the act’s purpose was punishment rather than treatment, which violated due process; second, it was an ex post facto law, implemented after Hendricks’s original conviction; and third, it constituted double jeopardy, since he was retried for the same crime.
The Kansas Supreme Court agreed with Hendricks and invalidated the law on the grounds that it violated due process. Subsequently, Kansas appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thirty-seven states with similar laws filed amicus briefs on Kansas’s behalf.
The Supreme Court Decision
In a 5–4 decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the majority upheld the law and rejected all three of Hendricks’s claims.
First, the court rejected the due process claim, arguing that the confinement under the SVPA occurred after a judicial process, ensuring that the defendant had ample opportunity to mount a defense. Additionally, the majority agreed with Kansas that the act was a civil, not a criminal law, and thus rejected the idea that Hendricks’s confinement amounted to double jeopardy under an ex post facto law. Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented; they disagreed with the majority’s characterization of the law, arguing that it was correctly viewed as a punitive measure. As a result of the decision, Hendricks remained in confinement; in 2005, at age 70, he was released into a supervised living program.
Kansas v. Crane
The Supreme Court revisited the SVPA in 2001. At this time, Michael Crane, a man convicted of two separate sexual assaults in 1993, appealed his confinement under the SVPA. Specifically, Crane argued that although state psychiatrists had diagnosed him as suffering from both exhibitionism and an antisocial personality disorder, the state had not established that he was completely unable to control his violent impulses. As such, he argued that he did not meet the standard for involuntary confinement under the SVPC, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Hendricks.
The Kansas Supreme Court sided with Crane, arguing that Hendricks required a finding that the defendant was both mentally ill and suffering full volitional impairment. Kansas appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 7–2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Kansans Supreme Court had misinterpreted the Hendricks decision, taking an overly narrow view of its 1997 ruling. Specifically, the majority opinion, written by Breyer and joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, and Ginsburg, held that the Hendricks decision required only that the state demonstrate that the defendant had some lack of control and thus was likely to engage in sexually violent behavior in the future. The court was clear, however, that for involuntary confinement to pass constitutional muster, it was necessary for the state to establish that the defendant had some difficulty controlling his behavior. As such, the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the lower court.
Subsequently, in a new SVPA hearing a jury found that Crane did possess the ability to control his impulses; he was released in 2002, but was arrested again in 2003 for a violent sex crime.
- Atlee, Michael L. “Kansas v. Hendricks: Fighting for Children on the Slippery Slope.” Mercer Law Review, v.49/3 (1998).
- King, Cynthia A. “Fighting the Devil We Don’t Know: Kansas v. Hendricks, A Case Study Exploring the Civilization of Criminal Punishment and its Ineffectiveness in Preventing Child Sexual Abuse.” William and Mary Law Review, v.40/1 (1999).
- Sarkar, Sameer P. “From Hendricks to Crane:The Sexually Violent Predator Trilogy and the Inchoate Jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, v.31, (2003). http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/legal/hendricks-sexually-violent-predator-svp.pdf (Accessed September 2013).
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