Civil Commitment of R.L. Under SVPA: Appellate Court Upholds Decision

In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of R.L.

Docket No. A-3766-20

Decided August 17, 2023

Submitted by New Jersey Sex Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided R.L.’s appeal from three Law Division orders: (1) an April 2020 order of temporary commitment; (2) a May 2020 order denying his motion to dismiss the petition and continuing the initial commitment hearing; and (3) an August 2021 judgment of initial commitment.

Defendant was civilly committed to the Special Treatment Unit (STU), pursuant to the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA), N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24 to -27.38, following the completion of his prison sentence for endangering the welfare of a six-year-old child by sexual conduct.

When he was 29 years old, R.L. babysat for his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter. The child reported that R.L. had vaginally and anally penetrated her. Defendant was eventually charged with second-degree endangering the welfare of a child and two counts of second-degree sexual assault.

In July 2016, R.L. pled guilty to endangering the welfare of a child and the State dismissed the remainder of the charges. He was sentenced in June of the same year to a seven-year prison term, subject to Megan’s Law, parole supervision for life (PSL), and a Nicole’s Law restraining order. In May 2017, R.L. was transferred to the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center (ADTC) in Avenel, after he volunteered to participate in sex offender specific treatment.

In March 2020, approximately one month before R.L. was scheduled to max out of his sentence, the Attorney General petitioned for R.L.’s involuntary civil commitment. The Attorney General noted R.L.’s prior criminal history, including sexual offenses, and asserted his predicate offense was the result of the commission of a sexually violent offense as defined in the SVPA. The petition included the clinical certificates of two psychiatrists, who evaluated R.L. in March 2020 and identified him as a sexually violent predator eligible for civil commitment. R.L. opposed the petition, arguing that the State failed to present prima facie proof that his endangering offense satisfied the SVPA’s definition of a sexually violent offense. After considering the submissions and arguments of both sides, the trial court issued a temporary order of commitment. The court found that given all of these circumstances, the State established that R.L. was convicted of a sexually violent offense.

The matter was assigned to another judge for an initial commitment hearing, which commenced in late April of 2020. R.L.’s counsel argued the State could not satisfy its burden of proof because it had not provided the transcript of R.L.’s July 2016 guilty plea. The State opposed R.L.’s oral application to dismiss the litigation. The deputy attorney general explained that her paralegal had ordered the transcript, but its receipt was delayed because of logistics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The testimonial hearing proceeded on four non-consecutive days between December 10, 2020 and May 26, 2021. The State presented the testimony of a psychiatrist, and a psychologist. The State’s psychiatrist noted R.L.’s sexual offense history which included multiple charges when he was a juvenile, some of which were dismissed. The psychiatrist opined R.L.’s response to treatment was minimally successful and he had “interpersonal instability, used “sex as a coping mechanism” and was highly likely to reoffend. The State’s psychologist noted R.L.’s criminal history had escalated in severity over time, he showed hostility and aggression towards women and was provisionally diagnosed with paraphilia disorder. The trial court ultimately entered a judgment committing R.L. to the State’s custody, care, and treatment, articulating that R.L. suffered from a mental abnormality, a personality disorder that affects his emotional, cognitive and/or volitional functions and capacities to such a degree that he is predisposed to commit acts of sexual violence. Although the judge indicated he applied the balancing test that is set forth in the W.Z. case, the trial judge ultimately found R.L. “would have serious difficulty controlling his sexually violent behavior to such a degree that he would be highly likely within the reasonably foreseeable future to engage in acts of sexual violence.” R.L. appealed.

On appeal, R.L. contended that (1) the temporary commitment order was issued without probable cause that he was convicted of a sexual offense within the meaning of the SVPA because the State failed to provide the transcript of his guilty plea; (2) the trial judge erroneously denied his motion to dismiss the petition because the State failed to provide the plea transcript within twenty days of the temporary commitment order; and (3) the trial judge’s decision to commit him was based on an incorrect legal standard. After considering the trial court record and the arguments of counsel, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s civil commitment of R.L. The court indicated that although the trial judge erroneously referenced the balancing test, any error was harmless because the judge applied the applicable standard to conclude the State met its burden of proof. The court disagreed with R.L.’s remaining contentions.

At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients for appeals in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to being civilly committed following being sentenced to a sexual offense within the meaning of the SVPA. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing a similar situation to that of R.L. in this case, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington, Haddon Heights, Pine Hill, Bellmawr, Haddon Township, Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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