United States v. Springer, No. 12-7687

Decided: April 29, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina that found that Springer was ineligible for civil commitment because the government had failed to prove that he suffered from a serious mental illness under the Walsh Act.

Springer, a thirty-four year old male, had been convicted of six sex offenses between 1997 and 2004.  Four of those offenses involved victims who were thirteen years or younger.  In 2010, Springer was sentenced to 37-months in prison and a lifetime of supervised release following his failure to comply with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act after he moved from New York to North Carolina.  Approximately six months before his scheduled release, the government classified Springer as “sexually dangerous” and moved to have him civilly committed pursuant to the Walsh Act.  The district court held an evidentiary hearing to determine if Springer qualified under the Walsh Act commitment criteria.  Both parties stipulated that Springer satisfied the “conduct prong” and so the evidence focused on whether he satisfied the “serious mental illness” and “volitional control” prongs.  The district court – finding that Springer’s expert’s testimony more persuasive than the government’s experts – determined that the government failed to meet its burden under.  Springer was released from prison and the government appealed.  Prior to the appeal, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York determined that Springer violated the conditions of his supervised release by failing to spend the required amount of time at his group residence and by engaging in a “consensual intimate relationship” with another adult who was also a convicted sex offender.  Because of these violations, Springer was sentenced to another 13 months in prison and the Bureau of Prisons again certified Springer as meeting the criteria for civil commitment.

The Fourth Circuit first addressed whether Springer’s most recent arrest and imprisonment rendered the case moot because, regardless of their decision, Springer was going to remain in prison until the district court decided the second civil commitment case.  The court concluded that Springer’s re-incarceration did not preclude the court from providing “effectual relief” in the current case because Springer’s current sentence, if he met the criteria for civil commitment, could be extended past the 13 months he now faced in prison.  In the alternative, the court held that because the Bureau of Prisons attempted to civilly commit Springer a second time after the district court’s initial ruling and during the pendency of appeal fell into an exception to the mootness doctrine for “wrongs ‘capable of repetition, yet evading review.’”  Next, the court took up whether it should remand the case in light Springer’s recent violation.  The court stated that it generally orders a remand for consideration of new evidence when there is a basis for doing so in a rule or statute; however the Walsh Act has no provisions for when remand is appropriate and the federal courts had not yet had an opportunity to confront the issue.  The court held that Springer’s violation of his supervised release was not material to the issue of whether Springer currently suffers from a serious mental illness – in this case pedophilia – and, therefore, did not require the Fourth Circuit to remand the case back to the district court.  After concluding that the case was ripe for review, the court then turned its attention to the actual merits of the appeal.  The government argued that the district court’s erred in its decision that Springer did not have a serious mental illness because its findings were contrary to the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”).  The government also argued that the district court incorrectly concluded that Springer no longer suffered from pedophilia, gave too much credit to Springer’s testimony that he was no longer attracted to prepubescent children, and improperly relied on Springer’s medical expert because the expert failed to consider pertinent conflicting evidence.  The Fourth Circuit held that it was within the district court’s discretion to not follow the DSM in deciding whether Springer suffered from a serious mental illness and provided great deference to the district court’s determination regarding the credibility of Springer’s expert.  Lastly, the court held that the record showed that Springer’s expert did not fail to consider the contested evidence in making his determination and, therefore, the district court did not commit error in holding that Springer did not suffer from a serious mental illness.

Full Opinion

– John G. Tamasitis

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