8th Circuit Upholds Minnesota's Sex Offender Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 05, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

"Minnesota has the highest per capita population of civilly committed sex offenders in the nation."

This is mentioned as little more than a footnote in the Eighth Circuit decision, upholding the state's sex offender program against claims of unconstitutionality. But that one sentence almost tells the whole story.

In 1994, the state enacted the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. It provides specialized sex offender assessment, diagnosis, care, treatment, supervision, and other services to civilly committed sex offenders. It has received 714 people, but no one has been fully discharged from the program and only three have been provisionally discharged from the program. That's where the case begins.

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The plaintiffs, who were sent to the program after being adjudged a "sexually dangerous person or a person with a sexual psychopathic personality," sued on various grounds. Among other concerns, they argued that it was easier to get committed than to get out of the program.

Minn. Stat. Ann. § 253D(3)-(4) says if a person is committed, "the court shall order commitment for an indeterminate period of time and the committed person shall be transferred, provisionally discharged, or discharged, only as provided in this chapter." The question for release, under Minn. Stat. Ann. § 253D.31, is whether the person is "no longer dangerous to the public."

A federal judge concluded that the statutory scheme violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights to due process. It was tantamount to indefinite incarceration without the constitutional safeguards for criminal defendants.

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The Eighth Circuit reversed, explaining that the trial judge used the wrong test to determine the constitutionality of the statutes. The appeals court said the program did not "shock the conscience," but rather showed the state had a rational basis for a legitimate interest in protecting the public from sex offenders.

"We conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard," the panel said.

Plaintiff's attorney Dan Gustafson was not so shocked as he was "really disappointed." He said the plaintiffs are considering an appeal to the full 8th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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