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Criminal Practice – Catch-all limitations period inapplicable to civil commitment

United States v. Searcy (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-017-18, 25 pp.) (Diaz, J.) No. 16-6833, Jan. 18, 2018; EDNC at Raleigh (Flanagan, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: The court of appeals held that the federal four-year “catch-all” statute of limitations for civil actions does not apply to civil-commitment proceedings under the Adam Walsh Act.

In 2015, while Plaintiff Edgar Searcy was in federal prison for using interstate commerce to engage in a sexual activity with a minor, the Bureau of Prisons certified him as a sexually dangerous person under the Adam Walsh Act. Searcy moved to dismiss the subsequent civil-commitment proceeding, arguing that 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) required the government to commence the proceedings within four years after the enactment of the Act (in 2006). The district court denied the motion, holding that § 1658(a) – which generally provides for a four-year limitations period where Congress has not specified one – did not apply because civil commitment was governed solely by the Act at 18 U.S.C. § 4248. The district court also noted that because the civil-commitment inquiry is primarily prospective, concerns about evidence becoming stale or lost prior to determination were without merit.

Section 1658(a) provides, in pertinent part that: “Except as otherwise provided by law, a civil action arising under an Act of Congress enacted after the date of the enactment of this section may not be commenced later than four years after the cause of action accrues.” There is no doubt that the Act is “an Act of Congress enacted after the date of the enactment of” § 1658(a). But, pursuant to the statute, the court must also analyze whether another limitations period is “otherwise provided by law” and also whether civil commitment is a “civil action.”

Internal limitations period

The Adam Walsh Act isn’t silent about when a civil-commitment proceeding must be brought: The government may only seek to certify someone as a sexually dangerous person if the person is (1) in the custody of the Bureau of Prison, (2) committed to the custody of the Attorney General, or (3) someone against whom all criminal charges have been dismissed solely for reasons relating to mental health. Thus, the statute imposes a clear start and end point during which the government must initiate civil-commitment proceedings: the period of time in which that person is in custody of the federal government. Because this rule anchors civil-commitment proceedings to a discrete duration of time, no additional statute of limitations is required.

Statutes of limitations are designed to insure fairness to defendants by preventing the revival of stale claims in which the defense is hampered by lost evidence, faded memories, and disappearing witnesses, and to avoid unfair surprise. Civil-commitment proceedings implicate none of these concerns because, while nearly all ordinary litigation is backward-looking, a civil-commitment proceeding focuses primarily on the present and future. Its central concern is not whether the person may have been a danger in the past, but rather whether the person, if released, will pose a threat to society.

In any event, Searcy’s proposed solution would not remedy his concern about timeliness. Moving the civil-commitment hearing earlier in a prisoner’s sentence would do little to lessen the concern related to older convictions because the amount of time between the prior conviction and the entry into federal custody is inherently arbitrary.

28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) is a gap-filling rule, and the Adam Walsh Act leaves no gap to be filled. For these reasons, the court holds that the timing of a civil commitment proceeding is “otherwise provided by law.” Thus, the catch-all limitations period in § 1658(a) does not apply.

What’s a “civil action”?

The court is also satisfied that a civil commitment proceeding is not the sort of “civil action” Congress had in mind when it enacted § 1658(a). Black’s Law Dictionary defines a civil action as one “brought to enforce, redress, or protect a private or civil right; a noncriminal action.” When the government brings a civil-commitment action, it does not seek to enforce or protect a private civil right. Rather than asking the court to right a wrong between litigants, the government is exercising its constitutional power to act for the protection of the public at large.

Civil commitment is unique in other ways that do not align with everyday civil actions. For example, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3 provides that “[a] civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.” But a civil-commitment proceeding is initiated by the filing of a certification that an individual is sexually dangerous. Indeed, the statutory procedures for a civil-commitment hearing differ substantially from those that apply to a run-of-the-mill civil case in that they afford individuals rights traditionally associated with criminal proceedings, including the right to appointed counsel, the right to confront witnesses, and a heightened burden of proof.

Thus, the court concludes that a civil-commitment hearing under the Adam Walsh Act is not a “civil action” as that term is used in § 1658(a) and, accordingly, the catch-all statute of limitations is inapplicable in the civil-commitment context.”



(Thacker, J.) In my view, 18 U.S.C. § 4248 civil-commitment proceedings are “civil actions” under 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a), but application of the four-year limitations period in the circumstance of this case would lead to an absurd result. Thus, I concur in the judgment that § 1658(a) does not apply.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines an “action” broadly as “any judicial proceeding, which, if conducted to a determination, will result in a judgment or decree.” The court has concluded in past opinions that § 4248 civil-commitment proceedings are of the “civil” variety. If a civil-commitment proceeding can in no sense be equated to a criminal prosecution (as the U.S. Supreme Court has held), what else but a civil action could such a proceeding be?

Nevertheless, it is clear that applying § 1658(a)’s limitations period to such proceedings would lead to absurd results. The concept of accrual highlights the absurdity. Normally, a statute of limitations requires a past act, event, or harm to trip the limitations clock. In civil commitments, however, there is no corresponding past act, event, or harm by which to mark accrual. Instead, the limitations period would run from the time of reasonable suspicion of future harm. This is inconsistent with other statutes of limitations. The most blatant absurdity is also the most impactful: That is, there is no reason to civilly commit an individual who is already in custody and who will remain in custody for a significant period. Thus, in many circumstances, applying a four-year limitations period to civil-commitment proceedings would require theh commitment of those not “nearer to release.” This would run counter to the aims of § 4248 to protect the public from a present threat of harm.

Contrary to Searcy’s argument, the Act’s mandated review hearings underscore the absurdity in two ways. First, putting government resources toward early certification solely for purposes of the limitations period, and then constantly recertifying, would be inefficient. Second, the earlier civil-commitment proceedings must occur, the more likely the government is to meet its initial burden to show that the individual is a sexually dangerous person. In this way, the system would be skewed in favor of commitment.

Ultimately, these multiple absurdities compel me to conclude that § 1658(a)’s limitations period does not apply to § 4248 civil-commitment proceedings.


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