August 8, 2011 By
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United States v. Comstock (2010)
United States Supreme Court
130 S. Ct. 1949
Nature of Case
Whether it is unconstitutional for the federal government to allow for the civil commitment of sexually dangerous persons following the completion of their federal criminal sentences.
Facts of Case
In 2006, as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. §4248. Section 4248 allows district courts to order civil commitments for individuals who are presently in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and who have 1) “previously engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation,” and 2) “currently suffer from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder,” and 3) “as a result of that mental illness, abnormality, or disorder is sexually dangerous to others, in that he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” If the Government proves these three criteria by clear and convincing evidence, the individual is remanded to custody of the Attorney General. Confinement in a federal facility continues until the individual’s mental condition improves so that the individual is no longer dangerous, or until a state assumes responsibility for the individual’s custody, care, and treatment.
In November and December 2006, the Government initiated civil commitment proceedings for the five respondents in this case, in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. All five respondents argued for dismissal of their commitments based on multiple constitutional grounds. The District Court accepted two of the grounds and agreed that the Constitution required proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that Congress exceeded its legislative powers according to Article I of the Constitution. The District Court then granted the respondents’ motions to dismiss. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the dismissal on the legislative ground, but did not address other constitutional claims and did not decide the standard-of-proof question. The Government sought and was granted certiorari, but the request was limited to Congress’ authority to enact the §4248 statute.
Does the United States Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause, Article I, §8, clause 18, grant Congress the authority to enact U.S.C. §4248?
In a 7 to 2 decision, the Court concluded the Constitution “authorizes Congress to enact the statute.” The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Breyer, the Court outlined five considerations which led to their conclusion: 1) the Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress broad authority to pass laws in furtherance of its constitutionally enumerated powers, 2) Congress has long been involved in the delivery of mental health care to federal prisoners, and has long provided for their civil commitment, 3) there are sound reasons for the enactment (protection of the public), 4) §4248 does not invade the province of state sovereignty, but rather requires accommodation of state interests, and 5) §4248 is narrow in scope, is applied to only a small fraction of federal offenders, and is far from a general police power.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia dissented on the grounds that §4248 did not execute a specific enumerated power, thus the Necessary and Proper Clause did not empower Congress to enact this statute, and this rendered §4248 unconstitutional. Justice Thomas argued that “the fact that the Federal Government has the authority to imprison a person for the purpose of punishing him for a federal crime – sex related or otherwise – does not provide the Government with the additional power to exercise indefinite civil control over that person.” Justice Thomas voiced concern that allowing §4248 to be upheld based on the Necessary and Proper Clause “comes perilously close to transforming the Necessary and Proper Clause into a basis for the federal police power that we have always rejected.”
August 5, 2011 By
ontent/uploads/2011/06/legalbrief.jpg” alt=”" width=”91″ height=”108″ />United States v. Greer (1998)
Nature of Case
Whether a defendant who is found to be malingering can receive a sentence enhancement for obstruction of justice.
Facts of Case
In the summer of 1994, Charles Randall Greer was homeless and was allowed to stay in a garage apartment of an acquaintance, Joyce Cantrell, in Lubbock, Texas. He was allowed to use the phone in her home, but then entered her bedroom without permission and would not leave. He grabbed her wrists and told her “Don’t cause me any problems.” Cantrell offered to make Greer dinner, but when Greer retreated to the bedroom, she then escaped from the house and called police. Greer left the house before police arrived; however, feces had been smeared in the bathroom and a gun was missing from Cantrell’s home. Greer then proceeded to the home of Arthur Fellows, another acquaintance, and asked if he would be allowed to shower. Follows at first allowed Greer into his home; however, Greer began to curse loudly and when Follows asked him to leave, Greer struck Follows, bound him at gunpoint, and ordered him to drive him to New Mexico. Greer pointed the gun at Follows with his hand on the trigger for the entire drive. Greer had Follows bring him to a hotel in Albuquerque and paid for the motel with Follows’ credit card. Upon arrival, Greer stated he achieved the purpose of the kidnapping, which was to be far away from family and friends when he committed suicide. He apologized to Follows, allowed Follows to leave, and entered the motel room alone. Follows contacted police and Greer was arrested at the motel. A federal grand jury indicated Greer on five counts, including kidnapping, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, possession of a stolen firearm, transporting a stolen firearm in interstate commerce, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Greer was found incompetent to stand trial on New Mexico state charges for Follows’ kidnapping. On November 14, 1994 Greer was ordered to undergo a federal competency evaluation. He underwent a one and a half month competency evaluation at the U.S. Medical Center, and a competency hearing was held on April 21, 1995. The forensic evaluator for Greer’s case, Dr. Richard Frederick, was called to testify and gave the opinion that Greer was competent and feigning a psychotic disorder. Preston Shaw, a local psychiatrist testified that Greer was incompetent, but the district court found Greer competent. Defense counsel filed another request for a competency evaluation prompted by Greer’s continued bizarre behavior. A Texas Department of Corrections psychiatrist evaluated Greer and gave the opinion he was incompetent. On February 8, 1996, the Government acquiesced and the district court ordered Greer to be committed to the custody of the Attorney General for competency restoration. He was sent to the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota for competency restoration. On July 17, 1996 Greer had another competency hearing based on a competency evaluation received from FMC Rochester. Dr. Mary Alice Conroy evaluated Greer at FMC Rochester and she gave the opinion that he was competent, was malingering, and had a personality disorder with antisocial and borderline features. The day before the trial, the district court found Greer competent and that he had feigned mental illness.
Greer’s trial began on August 7, 1996. While in a holding cell, Greer took off his clothes and attempted to flush them down the toilet and also spit up some blood from a self-inflicted abrasion in his mouth. Following this incident, the judge spoke with Greer and told Greer that he was found competent to stand trial and was believed to be a malingerer. Greer was told that if he continued to disrupt the trial process he would be removed from the court room and the case would be tried in his absence. Greer continued his misbehavior at trial and at one point lunged at his counsel in an attempt to hit him. Greer was removed from the proceedings. The court found that Greer had “consciously, deliberately, and voluntarily” waived his constitutional right to be present at his trial and the jury convicted Greer on all counts. When Greer was sentenced, the Government objected to his pre-sentence report arguing that he should receive a sentence enhancement for obstruction of justice. The district court granted the Government’s objection and Greer received a two-level offense enhancement which resulted in his receiving a 210-month sentence. Without the sentence enhancement the maximum sentence he could have received was 185 months. The defendant appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and argued against the sentence enhancement on multiple grounds. He argued that the conduct that led to the obstruction of justice finding was due to his antisocial and borderline personality disorders, and therefore a sentence enhancement should not apply. He also argued that the underlying conduct for obstruction of justice must be a crime on its own. He also argued that by enhancing a sentence for feigning incompetence violates a defendant’s right to be tried only when competent. Furthermore, he argued that he should only have been cited for contempt of court and not given a sentence enhancement of obstruction of justice.
Did the district court err in enhancing the defendant’s sentence for obstruction of justice?
The appellate court affirmed the district court decision and held that the sentence enhancements for kidnapping and related offenses were permitted, because the defendant’s actions impeded the prosecution of the case, and met criteria for obstruction of justice according to the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Furthermore, the court indicated that for the obstruction of justice sentence enhancement, the underlying behavior need not be a crime. The court stated that the district court only needed to find by preponderance of the evidence that Greer feigned incompetence in order to delay or avoid his trial. The court stated that a sentence would be upheld on appeal unless it was imposed in violation of law. The appellate court decided that the district court did not clearly err in enhancing Greer’s sentence, and the court upheld Greer’s sentence imposed by the district court. The appellate court found “the district court did not err in finding Greer willfully feigned mental illness in a conscious and deliberate effort to delay, and perhaps avoid altogether, his day of reckoning on the grave offenses with which he was charged.”
The Court concluded that Greer’s arguments did not have merit. First, the court determined that Greer’s personality disorders did not compel his actions, and his actions were volitional attempts to feign incompetence. The court stated that the legal system regularly permits the conviction and sentencing of individuals with personality disorders, so these diagnoses did not make him immune to a sentence enhancement.
Additionally, the court found that while the sentencing guidelines do not explicitly state that feigning incompetence to avoid trial or conviction is equivalent to obstruction of justice, the list was not exhaustive, and the court was convinced that this conduct was very similar to the conduct specified in the sentencing guidelines. Furthermore, the court stated that the conduct does not necessarily need to be criminal in and of itself.
The court concluded that allowing for sentencing enhancements for obstruction of justice due to feigning incompetence did not violate a defendant’s constitutional right to only be tried when competent. The court stated that a defendant has a constitutional right to a competency hearing if a bonafide doubt exists regarding competency; however, the defendant does not have a right to exaggerate or fabricate incompetence. Additionally, the court stated that counsel should warn their clients that feigning incompetence would trigger a sentence enhancement. This sentence enhancement was not meant for defendants who have competency hearings and are found competent, but rather those defendants who willfully and purposefully exaggerate or fabricate impairment in order to delay or avoid trial. Additionally, if a defendant challenges a sentence enhancement, the district court must provide support for its ruling.
The court reasoned that the defendant’s actions need not have imposed a burden on the government to necessitate the obstruction of justice enhancement, but rather the idea he attempted to manipulate the system and that his actions could have impacted the process were enough for the sentence enhancement.
Lastly, the court found that Greer’s outbursts in the court room were a continuation of his attempts to feign incompetence, and his prior willful attempts to feign incompetence were also sufficient for sentence enhancement, so regardless of whether he should have received a sentence enhancement for his courtroom behavior alone did not need to be decided by the court. The court was simply required to identify that Greer tried to create an appearance of incompetency with the specific intent of obstructing justice. In this case they had circumstantial evidence, but indicated that the proof need not be direct and incontrovertible, and enough evidence was available to identify he willfully and purposefully feigned incompetence.