U.S. Supreme Court Case Update: U.S. v. Comstock

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section, http://www.abanet.org/crimjust

United States v. Comstock (No. 08-1224)

United States Supreme Court Decision: May 17, 2010

In United States v. Comstock (08-1224), the Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision ruling that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered “sexually dangerous” after their prison terms are complete. Today’s Supreme Court opinion upholds the law passed by Congress allowing civil commitment of a federal prisoner who is a sex offender to continue beyond the date the inmate otherwise would be released.

The Adam Walsh Child protection and Safety Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, authorized, in 18 U.S.C. § 4248, the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” federal inmates already held in custody. This act provides authority to the government to have individuals either completing federal prison sentences or incompetent to stand trial, to remain in federal custody indefinitely if they are found through clear and convincing evidence to be a person who is legally “sexually dangerous.”

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was challenged by four men, who served prison terms for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. When these four men were completing terms in federal prison, the federal government initiated civil-commitment proceedings stating they would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released. The four men moved to dismiss the proceedings on constitutional grounds that 18 U.S.C. § 4248 exceeded Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause, the “clear and convincing requirement” did not meet due process standards, and that the section violated the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The federal district court ruled in their favor and granted a motion to dismiss.

The issue before the Supreme Court was narrowed to whether congress had the constitutional authority to enact 18 U.S.C. 4248 under the Necessary and Proper Clause and whether congress could authorize the civil commitment of a “sexually dangerous” person who is already in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons (but who are coming to the end of their federal prison sentences) or who are in the custody of the Attorney General because they have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial. The United States argued that this potential civil commitment is a “necessary and proper” exercise of federal power. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion stated, “[T]he statute is a ‘necessary and proper’ means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others.” Thus the Supreme Court concluded that the United States Constitution does provide legislative power for Congress to enact 18 U.S.C. § 4248.


A 7-2 decision with an opinion written by Justice Breyer. Justice Thomas dissented, Justice Scalia joined in part on Justice Thomas’ dissenting opinion. Justice Kennedy concurred in the judgment only, joined by Justice Alito.

Contact Information