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October 30, 2017
  United States v. Maclaren -- Fourth Circuit
The Sufficiency of Plausibility: Fourth Circuit Sets Pleading Standard for Adam Walsh Act Release Hearings

Areas of Law: Criminal Law, Statutory Interpretation

Issue Presented: What pleading standard should apply to an Adam Walsh Act detainee's motion for a discharge hearing under 18 U.S.C. § 4247(h).

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred by denying an Adam Walsh Act detainee's motion for a discharge hearing. A detainee's motion must allege with particularity the extent to which his psychological condition had improved while civilly committed. The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded to the district court, explaining that a sufficient § 4247(h) motion for a discharge hearing need only allege enough facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face.

Extended Summary: In December 2009, the government classified Donald Maclaren as a sexually dangerous person pursuant to the Adam Walsh Act. In February 2013, a district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina found the government met its burden of proving Maclaren should be civilly committed pursuant to the Act. The court explained that the government proved 1) Maclaren engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation; 2) suffers from a serious mental illness; and 3) as a result, would have trouble refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.

However, debate surrounded the third factor: whether he would have difficulty refraining from further child molestation. Maclaren was fifty - four years old when he was incarcerated for child molestation. The court debated whether his age and physical impairments could prevent him from engaging in child molestation. The court ultimately decided no, and civilly committed him in the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina.

In October 2015, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4247(h), Maclaren filed a motion requesting a hearing to determine whether he should be discharged under a conditional release plan. Maclaren submitted an expert report with the motion. The report explained why Maclaren qualified for conditional release: he would not have difficulty now refraining from child molestation. The report based its conclusion on the new edition of the DSM-V, which does not characterize child molestation as a life-long condition. The report also relied upon Maclaren's advanced age and deteriorating health. The government argued against the motion because Maclaren never specifically stated in his motion that he had made improvements in his mental condition while committed. The government also included an analysis of why Maclaren was still a sexually dangerous person.

A district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied the motion for a discharge hearing. The court ruled that a § 4247(h) motion must state with particularity the extent to which the detainee's psychological condition has improved. The court also invoked Maclaren's failure to provide information regarding a plan for treatment after release and unwillingness to participate in a treatment program during commitment as reasons for denial.

The Fourth Circuit began with statutory interpretation of the Adam Walsh Act. The court explained that § 4247 provides a mechanism for committed detainees under the Act to challenge their commitment: they can file a motion for a hearing; if a hearing is granted, the person has the opportunity to testify, present evidence, subpoena witnesses, and confront adverse witnesses at the hearing. The hearing court should order a discharge if it finds by a preponderance of the evidence that 1) the person is no longer sexually dangerous, or 2) the person will not be sexually dangerous if released under a prescribed treatment plan.

The court explained that while the Act specifies the evidentiary standard for the hearing (preponderance of the evidence), the Act remains silent on how courts should analyze the motion for a discharge hearing. The court noted that the issue before it represented an issue of first impression across the circuits. Because the Act places explicit evidentiary standards on the hearing, it would be redundant to require Maclaren to make the same evidentiary showing in the motion. The court interpreted the Act's permission for Adam Walsh detainees to file writs of habeas corpus as evidence that Congress did not intend similar strict procedural requirements to apply to § 4247 motions.

Rather, the court compared Maclaren's procedural posture to a civil plaintiff who files a complaint. The § 4247 motion is the vehicle for Maclaren's claim for a hearing to determine discharge in much the same way that a civil plaintiff's complaint is the vehicle to a trial to determine fault. Civil plaintiffs must plead with plausibility before a judge or jury examines the evidence - complaints must "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, that states a claim of relief that is plausible on its face." Likewise, the court found the plausibility standard applies to § 4247 motions because that standard provides an adequate degree of scrutiny to analyze the motion's merits before the hearing.

The Fourth Circuit, therefore, vacated and remanded finding that the district court had imposed too strict of a pleading standard. The district court must now determine whether Maclaren's motion meets the plausibility standard.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Chief Judge Gregory and Circuit Judges Duncan and Diaz

Argument Date: 05/11/2017

Date of Issued Opinion: 08/02/2017

Docket Number: 16-6291

Decided: Vacated and remanded by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Matthew Schofield, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law
Counsel: ARGUED: Eric Joseph Brignac, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Michael Lockridge, BUREAU OF PRISONS, Butner, 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, Acting United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Diaz

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 10/30/2017 11:00 AM     4th Circuit  

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