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United States v. Searcy

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 18, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Petitioner-Appellee,
v.
EDGAR SEARCY, Respondent-Appellant.

          Argued: October 25, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. Louise W. Flanagan, District Judge. (5:15-hc-02292-FL)

         ARGUED:

          Eric Joseph Brignac, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Michael Gordon James, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Thomas P. McNamara, Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          John Stuart Bruce, United States Attorney, G. Norman Acker, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before DIAZ, THACKER, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

          DIAZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Edgar Joe Searcy appeals his civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Act, 18 U.S.C. § 4248. He does not challenge the factual findings of the district court, but rather urges us to hold that the government initiated this civil commitment proceeding after the applicable statute of limitations had lapsed. Searcy argues that the four-year "catch-all" statute of limitations Congress enacted for civil actions, see 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a), applies to civil commitment proceedings under the Adam Walsh Act. Thus, says Searcy, by not filing a certification until more than a decade after his incarceration and more than eight years after the passage of the Adam Walsh Act, the government initiated civil commitment proceedings too late. But, as we explain, 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) doesn't apply to civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Act. We therefore affirm the district court's judgment.

         I.

         Edgar Joe Searcy was convicted for using interstate commerce to engage in a sexual activity with a minor, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b). On December 4, 2003, the district court sentenced him to a term of 180 months imprisonment followed by a three-year term of supervised release. Searcy was scheduled to be discharged from prison on June 25, 2016.

         While Searcy was incarcerated, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. See Pub. L. No. 109-248, 120 Stat 587. Among other things, the Act provides a mechanism for civil commitment of individuals in federal custody who are deemed to be sexually dangerous persons. 18 U.S.C. § 4248. On December 4, 2015, as the end of Searcy's sentence approached, the Bureau of Prisons certified Searcy as a sexually dangerous person and petitioned to have him civilly committed pursuant to the Act. The certification was based in part on Searcy's current conviction, as well as prior state convictions in Florida and Kansas for sexual activity with a child; performing a lewd, lascivious, or indecent act upon a child under the age of sixteen; and exploitation of a child.

         As part of the certification process, the Bureau of Prisons conducted a psychological review and assessment of Searcy, which indicated diagnoses of pedophilic disorder, otherwise specified personality disorder with antisocial and narcissistic features, and moderate alcohol use disorder. The Bureau also performed a risk assessment of Searcy and concluded that based on "his prior offense conduct, sexual preoccupation, deviant sexual interest, offense-supportive attitude, lack of emotionally intimate relationships with adults, lifestyle impulsiveness, poor problem solving skills, resistance to rules and supervision, grievance/hostility and negative social influences, " Searcy would have "serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released." J.A. 17-18.

         Searcy moved to dismiss the civil commitment proceeding, arguing, among other things, that the four-year catch-all statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) required the government to commence civil commitment proceedings against him within four years after the enactment of the Adam Walsh Act. Generally speaking, § 1658(a) provides a four-year statute of limitations for federal civil actions where Congress has not specified one. Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act while Searcy was incarcerated, so Searcy argued that the four-year clock began to run with the passage of the Act.

         The district court denied the motion, holding that § 1658(a) "does not apply to respondent's § 4248 proceeding" because the proceeding "is governed by the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 4248, " under which "[t]he sole statutory precondition . . . is that [Searcy] be in the custody of [the Bureau of Prisons], be civilly committed as mentally incompetent to stand trial under 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d), or have had all criminal charges against him dismissed solely for reasons relating to his mental condition." J.A. 120. The district court also noted that because the civil commitment inquiry is "primarily prospective, respondent's argument that evidence became 'stale, ' was 'lost, ' or 'watered down' prior to his certification is without merit." Id. (internal citation omitted).

         The district court conducted a two-day hearing in which Searcy represented himself. The court heard testimony from four psychiatric experts, all of whom testified that Searcy satisfied the criteria for civil commitment. At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court found Searcy to be a sexually dangerous person and entered a judgment committing him to the custody and care of the Attorney General "until such time that he is no longer a sexually dangerous person." J.A. 495. This appeal followed.

         II.

         We are called upon to consider the relationship between two statutes: the civil commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Act, 18 U.S.C. § 4248, and the four-year catch-all statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a). To understand how these statutes interact, we begin with an overview of each.

         A.

         Congress enacted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 to "protect children from sexual exploitation and violent crime, to prevent child abuse and child pornography, to promote Internet safety, and to honor the memory of Adam Walsh and other child crime victims." Pub. L. No. 109-248, 120 Stat 587. Among other things, the Act established new sex-offender registry and notification requirements; enhanced certain criminal laws relating to sexual and violent crimes against children; and, relevant to this case, established a procedure for federal civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders. Id.

         Existing federal legislation provides for civil commitment of individuals in federal custody who, for example, "suffer[] from a mental disease or defect" and for whom release "would create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person or serious damage to property of another." See 18 U.S.C. § 4246(a). Additionally, a number of states have enacted laws "that seek to protect the public from mentally abnormal, sexually dangerous individuals through civil commitment or other mandatory treatment programs" for persons in state custody. See Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346, 388-89 (1997) (Breyer, J., dissenting) (collecting statutes). The Adam Walsh Act established a federal civil commitment procedure specifically focused on individuals deemed to be sexually dangerous.

         Civil commitment under the Act applies to persons who are in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, who are committed to the custody of the Attorney General pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d), [1] or who have had criminal charges dropped solely because of their mental condition. 18 U.S.C. § 4248(a). To initiate civil commitment proceedings, the Attorney General or an authorized individual must file a certificate in the district court where the person is confined certifying that the person is sexually dangerous. Id. A sexually dangerous person is one who "has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation" and who "suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder as a result of which he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released." 18 U.S.C. § 4247(a)(5)- (6).

         Upon the filing of a certificate, the district court holds a hearing at which the individual asserted to be sexually dangerous has the right to counsel (appointed by the court if he cannot afford a lawyer), and the opportunity "to testify, to present evidence, to subpoena witnesses on his behalf, and to confront and cross-examine witnesses who appear at the hearing." 18 U.S.C. § 4247(d). The court must be satisfied by clear and convincing evidence that the person is sexually dangerous. 18 U.S.C. § 4248(d). If the court so finds, the person is committed to the custody of the state where he was domiciled or tried, or to the custody of the Attorney General. Id.

         Once a person has been civilly committed, the Act provides procedures for reevaluation and possible release. The director of the facility where a person is civilly committed must prepare annual reports "concerning the mental condition of the person and containing recommendations concerning the need for his continued commitment" and submit those reports to the district court. 18 U.S.C. § 4247(e)(B). A civilly committed person may also (through counsel or a guardian) petition the court every 180 days for a hearing to determine whether he should be discharged. See 18 U.S.C. § 4247(h). If the district court determines by a preponderance of the evidence that a civilly committed person will no longer be sexually dangerous to others if released (either unconditionally or with a prescribed regimen of medical, psychiatric, or psychological care or treatment), then the person may be discharged. 18 U.S.C. § 4248(e). A person may also challenge his civil commitment collaterally through habeas corpus proceedings. See 18 U.S.C. § 4247 (g).

         B.

         28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) addresses the time limits for bringing certain claims in federal court. Before the passage of the statute, federal courts hearing civil cases routinely engaged in the practice of "limitations borrowing." This meant that when Congress failed to specify a statute of limitations in a federal law, "the settled practice [was] to adopt a local time limitation as federal law if it [was] not inconsistent with federal law or policy to do so." See Jones v. ...


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