United States v. Heyer, No. 12-7472

Decided: January 17, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina did not abuse its discretion by allowing only simultaneous sign language interpretation—rather than consecutive interpretation—for respondent–appellant Thomas Heyer (Heyer) during commitment proceedings under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, 18 U.S.C. §§ 4247–48; that the district court did not commit plain error by failing to allow a hearing on the interpretation issue; that the district court did not commit a mistake of law by labeling the case a civil matter during its discussion of the interpretation issue; that the district court did not commit clear error by finding Heyer to be a “sexually dangerous person” under 18 U.S.C. § 4248; and that the district court did not commit error by rejecting Heyer’s due process and equal protection claims. The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court.

In 1993, Heyer—a deaf man—was convicted of kidnapping after he molested a ten-year-old, tied him up, and placed him in a hole.  Heyer was later convicted of possession of child pornography after he “was found to have approximately 180 images of child pornography in his possession” around 2002.  After serving time in prison, Heyer began sex offender treatment during supervised release; however, his supervised release was revoked in 2007 when he went to a treatment session while under the influence of alcohol.  Heyer also admitted that, inter alia, he looked at “a lot of different websites that were triple-x” while on probation and that the pictures he viewed included both adults and children in sexual situations; that he showed some of the pictures to a young teenage boy and that he engaged in sexual activity with the boy over a period of about one-and-a-half years; that he knew his sexual activities with the boy were wrong, but he continued them because Heyer “liked it and [the boy] was willing”; that he had sexual contact with between eighteen and twenty-five boys after his eighteenth birthday; that his adolescent years were “plagued by fighting and being the victim of sexual aggression”; and that he experienced “some arousal to pre-pubescent boys, around age eight.”

In December 2008, the Government sought to have Heyer civilly committed as a “sexually dangerous person.”  The district court conducted an evidentiary hearing in May 2012.  Two forensic psychologists, Dr. Jeffrey Davis (Dr. Davis) and Dr. Heather Ross (Dr. Ross), testified that Heyer met the criteria for civil commitment; another forensic psychologist testified that Heyer did not meet the criteria, and an expert in “deafness and psychological issues related to deafness” also testified on behalf of Heyer.  Heyer moved the court to provide consecutive interpretation at the hearing; the district court denied the motion, stating “[w]ell, it’s a civil case.  The answer is no.  We are not going to make this into a marathon.”  In July 2012, the district court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, in which it found that the Government had met is evidentiary burden of proving that Heyer was a “sexually dangerous person.”  The district court civilly committed Heyer under 18 U.S.C. § 4248.  Heyer appealed, raising issues with the district court’s denial of his motion for consecutive interpretation, the district court’s conclusion that he is a “sexually dangerous person,” and with regard to equal protection and due process.

The Fourth Circuit noted that, under the Court Interpreters Act (CIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1827(k), there is a presumption of simultaneous interpretation for non-witnesses unless the district court finds that consecutive interpretation “will aid in the efficient administration of justice”—and the district court found that consecutive interpretation would unduly delay and enlarge the hearing.  Furthermore, Heyer’s attorney offered only a speculative reason for using consecutive interpretation, and the district court offered numerous linguistic accommodations to Heyer.  With regard to the district court’s failure to holding a hearing on the interpretation issue under 28 U.S.C. § 1827(k), the Fourth Circuit stated that, inter alia, it was unclear what—if any—additional evidence Heyer would have submitted during the hearing and that there was no evidence that Heyer suffered prejudice from the lack of a hearing on the issue.  The Fourth Circuit also found that the district court’s statement about the civil nature of the case made no indication that the court lacked understanding of the CIA’s application to civil and criminal cases alike.  With regard to the district court’s conclusion that Heyer is a “sexually dangerous person,” the Fourth Circuit noted the high level of deference owed to the district court’s determinations regarding the credibility expert witnesses.  The Fourth Circuit then noted that there was no dispute regarding Heyer’s engagement in past acts of child molestation and found that the district court adequately took Heyer’s deafness and linguistic difficulties into account, the district court properly quoted the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of pedophilia, and that Heyer failed to show that the opinions of Dr. Davis and Dr. Ross were unreasonable.  Lastly, the Fourth Circuit found that Heyer’s equal protection argument (that § 4248 creates an improper classification by subjecting Federal Bureau of Prisons individuals, but not other individuals under federal control, to civil commitment) and his due process argument (that § 4248 is better categorized as a criminal statute, and therefore fails to protect various rights provided to criminal defendants) were foreclosed by the Fourth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Timms, 664 F.3d 436.

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland

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