Fourth Circuit Survey

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Week of January 8, 2018 through January 12, 2018

US v. William Welsh (Diaz 1/12/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that the custody requirement for civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Act does not limit a court’s jurisdictional authority to hear a case governed by that statute since the custody requirement is not jurisdictional in nature. A convicted sex offender who was civilly committed after he failed to update his address for the sex offender registry challenged his civil commitment when the address-updating requirement was later struck down; he argued the court therefore did not have subject matter jurisdiction, but the district court denied his request. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion because it carefully weighed the factors and evidence, and therefore affirmed the district court’s judgment. Full Opinion

Aaron Carter v. L. Fleming (Traxler 1/8/2018): The Fourth Circuit held a prison serving food to an inmate that violates his religious dietary rules presents a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the inmate’s Free Exercise Clause rights have been violated. An Islamic prisoner was denied continued participation in a dietary program that complied with the Nation of Islam’s dietary rules after he ate an item not included in that program, and the inmate’s argument that the prison’s practice violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was denied by a grant of summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit found a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the inmate’s Free Exercise Clause rights were violated and that the prison failed to show the program was constitutional as a matter of law. Consequently, the court reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded for further proceedings. Full Opinion


Highlight Case

US v. William Welsh, No. 17-6355

Decided: January 12, 2018

The Fourth Circuit held that the custody requirement for civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Act does not limit a court’s jurisdictional authority to hear a case governed by that statute since the custody requirement is not jurisdictional in nature. A convicted sex offender who was civilly committed after he failed to update his address for the sex offender registry challenged his civil commitment when the address-updating requirement was later struck down; he argued the court therefore did not have subject matter jurisdiction, but the district court denied his request. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion because it carefully weighed the factors and evidence, and therefore affirmed the district court’s judgment.

In January 2011, William Carl Welsh pleaded guilty in an Oregon federal district court to failing to comply with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). While in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for that offense, Welsh was certified as a sexually dangerous person and civilly committed under § 4248 of Title 18. The Supreme Court later held in a different case that the version of SORNA then applicable to Welsh’s offense did not require a sex offender to update his registration in his former home state after moving to a foreign country. As a result, Welsh successfully moved to have his SORNA conviction vacated. He then sought relief from his civil commitment. Welsh claimed that the judgment was void under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4) because he was never in the legal custody of the Bureau of Prisons.

Under the Adam Walsh Act, the government may certify a person as a sexually dangerous person if they are in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. Welsh argued that he was never in the legal custody of the Bureau of Prisons because he never actually committed a crime by failing to register. As a result, he argued that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to commit him and its judgment was therefore void. The court, however, reasoned that because Congress did not rank the statutory limitation as jurisdictional, it should treat the restriction as non-jurisdictional in character. Therefore, the court held the civil commitment judgment was not void.

Next, the court discussed whether the district court abused its discretion by denying Welsh relief under Rules 60(b)(5) and 60(b)(6). The court considered that the district court noted that Welsh’s now-vacated conviction played a very minor role in the substantive decision to commit Welsh and that there was clear and convincing evidence to support his civil commitment. The court concluded that the district court carefully weighed the facts in concluding that Welsh should remain civilly committed.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Welsh’s motion for relief from his civil commitment.

Full Opinion

Jacob D. Taylor