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How Civil Commitment for “Sexually Violent Predators” Works in Texas

Sex crimes and sexually based offenses carry more than a social stigma. A conviction often requires defendants to permanently register as a sex offender in Texas, which can greatly restrict their housing and employment opportunities moving forward. In addition, prosecutors may seek “civil commitment” of certain sex offenders even after they complete their criminal sentences.

Under the Texas Health and Safety Code, a judge or jury may order civil commitment upon finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is a “sexually violent predator.” This includes individuals who were previously convicted of multiple sexually violent offenses, as well as anyone who “suffers from a behavioral abnormality that makes the person likely to engage in a predatory act of sexual violence.” If the defendant is ultimately adjudicated a sexually violent predator, he or she can be ordered to undergo a mandatory psychiatric treatment program.

Court of Criminal Appeals Rejects Efforts to Undermine 2015 Civil Commitment Reforms

Prior to 2015, a person subject to civil commitment could be separately charged and tried with a crime if they “failed to make progress” in their treatment program. But on June 17, 2015, a new Texas law took effect abolishing the criminal sanction and restructuring civil commitment as a “tiered program.” According to the current statute, the tiered program is designed to provide a “seamless transition of a committed person from a total confinement facility to less restrictive housing and supervision and eventually to release from civil commitment, based on the person’s behavior and progress in treatment.”

The 2015 law made it clear that any person already subject to civil commitment could not be criminally charged under the old law so long as their conviction was not final. Unfortunately, this did not deter some Texas prosecutors from trying to do an end-run around the law in order to bump up their conviction statistics. Fortunately, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put a stop to such shenanigans in a December 2017 decision.

The facts of the case were straightforward. The defendant pleaded guilty in 2013 to violating the terms of his civil commitment program, reserving his right to appeal. The judge sentenced the defendant to 25 years in prison. While the appeal was pending, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the 2015 law. The defendant then filed a brief with the appeals court, arguing the new law applied to his case, as his conviction was not yet final.

In response, prosecutors argued the application of the new law to the defendant’s case violated the Texas Constitution. Specifically, prosecutors accused the legislature of “usurping” the governor’s power to grant clemency in criminal cases. Notwithstanding the fact Gov. Abbott signed the law in question, the intermediate appeals court sided with prosecutors and affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

But in a 7-2 ruling the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. The majority noted the Governor is not the King of England and the state Constitution does grant him “the power to destroy judicial judgments and decrees.” Rather, the clemency power affords the governor the limited ability to “discharge a convict from further penal service.” In this case, the legislature chose to repeal a criminal statute and thus decriminalize the defendant’s conduct, which does not “unduly interfere” with the governor’s constitutional authority.

Charged With a Sex Crime? We Can Help

When it comes to sex offenses, prosecutors will often stop at nothing to secure a conviction–or a civil commitment of someone who has already paid their debt to society. This is why it is critical to work with a qualified Houston sex crimes defense attorney who will fight for your rights in court. Call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates at  (281) 280-0100 if you need to speak with someone right away.