Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) announced today that she has reintroduced legislation in partnership with San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan to extend the presumption of openness that exists in California courtrooms to proceedings under the Sexually Violent Predator Act. They initiated a similar effort last year but had to put it on hold due to the Legislature’s focus on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate Bill 248 would require that proceedings for the civil commitment of a sexually violent predator (SVP) and subsequent hearings regarding his/her potential release be in open court and on the record, unless compelling and extraordinary circumstances justify closing the courtroom to the public. This bill would require a notice to all parties of the proposed closure and that it be made at least 10 calendar days prior to the closed court hearing.
SB 248 also closes a loophole that would ensure SVPs return to a state hospital to continue serving their original commitment after a new prison sentence has been completed, so long as evaluators agree that the individual continues to meet SVP criteria.
Senator Bates said, “District Attorney Stephan and I believe that court hearings for sexually violent predators should be open to the public whenever possible. Victims, their families, and the public have the right to witness hearings regarding the potential release of a predator. I look forward to working with the District Attorney and my legislative colleagues to update the law to improve transparency in our courts.”
District Attorney Stephan stated, “This important legislation supports the principles of democracy and transparency in our justice system by making sure court hearings for sexually-violent predators are open to the public. As District Attorney, I hear the pain from victims who’ve been terrorized by a sexual predator but are left in the dark and not able to learn pertinent information guaranteed to them by our open courts system. I’m grateful for Senator Bates’ commitment to this bill which will ensure transparency during SVP hearings.”
Senator Bates and District Attorney Stephan say the bill is necessary because closed proceedings are inconsistent with the openness to which most people of a democracy are accustomed. The U.S. Supreme Court has opined that civil proceedings should be closed “only in the rarest of circumstances.” Additionally, the closure of these proceedings is in conflict with the constitutional rights of crime victims to be notified of and participate in hearings related to their assailant’s detention and release.
A trend has emerged recently where trial court judges, considering the potential release of sexually violent predators into local communities, have ordered those proceedings be closed to the public while increasingly sealing evidentiary documents relevant to the defendant’s sexually violent predatory behavior. Civil commitment proceedings involve a determination of the defendant’s mental health, the case also involves the defendant’s past convictions, which are a matter of public concern and the records of which may already be available to the public.
Mary Taylor and Cynthia Medina, the victims of a sexually violent predator and leaders of a victims’ rights group called “Your Voice Has Power” (which was formed in part due to a judge’s order to close proceedings) took part in multiple protests outside of a San Diego courthouse in 2018 and 2019 because the judge did not allow for an open court.
The victims stated that the judge was violating Marsy’s Law, which grants crime victims the right to attend a defendant’s court proceedings and express their views. Marsy’s Law traditionally applies to criminal proceedings, however, sexually violent predator proceedings do not possess all the qualities of a criminal prosecution. The legislative intent behind Marsy’s Law, which is centered around victim notification and participation in his or her assailant’s case, would support the ability of victims to be present at sexually violent predator court hearings, where the assailant’s further detention or potential release are being considered by a jury or judge.
SB 248 would strengthen Marsy’s Law. The bill is currently awaiting referral to a Senate policy committee.