Ninth Circuit: 9-Year Detention Pending Civil Commitment Proceeding Warrants Habeas Relief

Ninth Circuit: 9-Year Detention Pending Civil Commitment Proceeding Warrants Habeas Relief

In March 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s dismissal of a pro se habeas petitioner’s claim that his 9-year detention while waiting for the State of California to initiate civil commitment proceedings was unconstitutional.

Just before convicted rapist Bobby Joe Knight’s scheduled release from prison in 2004 after serving a 20-year sentence, the state filed a civil petition against him under California’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA), Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 6600, et seq. The Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered that Knight be held in a secure facility pending trial.

Knight remained in custody, as no effort was made to bring the state’s petition against him to trial. Incredibly, between 2004 and 2009, Knight’s counsel requested (or stipulated to) continuances of the case. Not content with the quality of his representation – being deprived of one’s liberty indefinitely, without due process of law, can be frustrating – Knight repeatedly requested that he be appointed new counsel.

Exasperated, he filed a habeas corpus petition in state court in April 2009, claiming that his lengthy detention was unconstitutional. The petition was denied, and Knight’s counsel and the government agreed to still more continuances.

In December 2009, Knight filed for habeas relief in federal court. [PLN readers should note that Knight’s habeas petition was brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and thus not subject to the demanding restrictions of AEDPA]. The district court dismissed the petition, concluding that because Knight was challenging ongoing state civil commitment proceedings, it could refuse to hear his case under the doctrine of abstention espoused by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Knight’s SVPA civil commitment proceedings were not ongoing, and thus Younger abstention did not apply. “Knight’s SVPA petition proceedings were not ‘ongoing,’ except in name only when he filed his federal habeas petition,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The case was remanded to the district court with instructions to issue a conditional writ of habeas corpus requiring the state to try Knight within 90 days or release him and dismiss the SVPA petition. See: Knight v. Ahlin, 709 F.3d 1296 (9th Cir. 2013).

However, while motions for rehearing and rehearing en banc were pending following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the parties filed a joint motion to dismiss. Accordingly, the appellate court dismissed Knight’s appeal, vacated its original decision, and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss. The earlier ruling cannot be cited as a precedent.

See: Knight v. Ahlin, 714 F.3d 1117 (9th Cir. 2013).

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)