Florida Supreme Court Rules Offender Cannot Be Committed Because Custody Unlawful – State v. Phillips
The Florida Supreme Court recently decided an unusual issue: can the state start involuntary civil commitment proceedings against an offender who should already have been released from prison? In State v. Phillips, Larry Phillips was held in prison past the time when he should have been released, thanks to a post-conviction award of time served. Authorities wished to commit Phillips involuntarily under the Jimmy Ryce Act, as a sexually violent predator, after he committed three sex crimes, but Phillips moved to dismiss because, he said, he should already have been released. The trial court disagreed and denied his motion, but the appeals court disagreed and ordered Phillips’s immediate release. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately upheld that order, finding that the state has no jurisdiction to start civil commitment proceedings against someone who should already have been released.
Phillips was prosecuted for separate offenses in both Georgia and Florida in 1990. The Georgia offense wasn’t specified; the Florida offense was lewd and lascivious assault. He served three years in Georgia, then sentenced to time served for the Florida case. He served his probation for both states in Georgia, but violated it in both states with a new charge of aggravated child molestation. After being paroled from a Georgia prison sentence, he was sent to Florida and sentenced to 5.5 years, less 177 days of time served. He later successfully moved to correct his sentence to reflect two years of time served granted by the Florida court for the original crime. Two months later, Florida authorities released him to a civil commitment center and started evaluation of whether he was a sexually violent predator under the Jimmy Ryce Act. Three and a half years later, still in custody without the benefit of a trial, Phillips moved to dismiss the commitment petition on the grounds that he should have been released when his sentence was over with credit for time served—which was before the transfer to the civil commitment center.
The district court denied the motion to dismiss, saying Phillips had been in lawful custody according to the full 5.5-year sentence. Phillips appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal, which reversed. That court found that Phillips was not in lawful custody because the sentencing court failed to award credit for prior time served, and that defendants cannot be committed if they are not in lawful custody. It dismissed the civil commitment case with prejudice and ordered him released from civil commitment detention.
The Florida Supreme Court accepted the case and granted a stay of the Second District’s order, but ultimately agreed with that court. The high court had previously interpreted the Ryce Act’s references to “custody” as requiring lawful custody. After a thorough review of prior cases, the court found nothing to meaningfully distinguish this case from its previous decisions. A dissent argued that releasing Phillips here would permit offenders to game the system by delaying their motions for sentence corrections, but the majority said offenders do not have sole power to determine the timing of Ryce Act proceedings relative to their own motions. The Supreme Court also noted that civil commitment requires due process of law, and urged everyone in the justice system to avert this problem by making sure sentencing orders are accurate.
The practice of civilly committing those who committed sex crimes has attracted a lot of criticism as a violation of those offenders’ civil rights. The story behind the appeal by Phillips does a lot to reinforce those concerns. This defendant apparently should have been released six months before his civil commitment proceedings began, but was nonetheless held without a trial for four years after the correct release date. In a criminal proceeding, this would have clearly violated his constitutional right to a swift trial. I suspect there is little concern about the constitutional rights of sex offenders; indeed, it’s not clear that civil commitment is primarily intended to serve public safety rather than revenge. If we are going to have the Ryce Act (and other state laws like it), I agree with the Florida high court that it’s vital to respect the due process rights of offenders like Phillips, even if we don’t like the crimes they committed.
If you’re accused of a serious sex offense in Florida, you need the help of an experienced attorney right away. Don’t hesitate to call criminal defense attorney David Seltzer at Seltzer Law, P.A. You can reach us toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email anytime.
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