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United States of America v. Frederick Springer

April 29, 2013


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. Terrence W. Boyle, District Judge. (5:12-hc-02009-BO)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wynn, Circuit Judge:


Argued: January 30, 2013

Before WILKINSON, KEENAN, and WYNN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Wynn wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Keenan concurred. Judge Wilkinson wrote a dissenting opinion.


This case involves the government's efforts to civilly commit Frederick Springer under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, No. 109-248, 120 Stat. 587 (the "Walsh Act"). The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina found Springer ineligible for civil commitment because the government failed to prove that Springer suffered from a serious mental illness under the Walsh Act and, even assuming Springer suffered from a qualifying mental illness, that Springer would have the requisite serious difficulty refraining from sexual misconduct. Because the district court did not clearly err in concluding that Springer did not have a serious mental illness, we affirm.

We further note that because we hold that the district court did not clearly err in concluding that Springer did not have a serious mental illness, we need not, and thus do not, address the district court's findings with regard to whether Springer lacks volitional control, which our good colleague in dissent relies upon to address policy implications that do not arise from our holding today. See United States v. Hall, 664 F.3d 456, 463 (4th Cir. 2012) (holding that if the government fails to meet its burden to demonstrate any of three statutory criteria for sexual dangerousness, an individual may not be committed under the Walsh Act).

Moreover, Springer presently remains incarcerated because the government certified him for a second time. Thus, it is without foundation that our good colleague in dissent states that "[a] bit of caution now may spare a child a painful future." Post, at 26. Indeed, that unsupported remark reflects no consideration of the fact that regardless of our holding today, Springer will remain incarcerated until his current prison term expires and the district court rules on the govern-ment's second effort to civilly commit him.



To civilly commit an individual under the Walsh Act, the government must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the individual: (1) previously "engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation" (the "prior conduct" prong); (2) currently "suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder" (the "serious mental illness" prong); and (3) "as a result of" that mental condition, the individual "would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released" (the "volitional control" prong). 18 U.S.C. § 4247(a)(5)-(6); Hall, 664 F.3d at 461. If the government fails to meet its burden on any of the three prongs, an individual may not be committed. Hall, 664 F.3d at 463.

Clear and convincing evidence is evidence "of such weight that it produces in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction, without hesitancy, as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established, and, as well, as evidence that proves the facts at issue to be highly probable." Jimenez v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 269 F.3d 439, 450 (4th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).


Springer, who is thirty-four years old, was convicted of six separate sex offenses between 1997 and 2004. Four of the six offenses involved victims thirteen years old and younger, with the remaining two offenses involving a sixteen year old and a nineteen year old. The most recent offense involving a victim under the age of thirteen occurred in 2000, when Springer was twenty-two. Springer also has been convicted of a number of non-sex-related offenses, including passing bad checks and larceny. In 2010, Springer was sentenced to thirty-seven months in prison, followed by lifetime supervised release, for failing to comply with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (the "Registration Act"), 18 U.S.C. § 2250, when he moved from New York to North Carolina.

On January 9, 2012, a little less than six months before Springer's scheduled release, the government certified Springer as "sexually dangerous" and sought to have him civilly committed under the Walsh Act. In August 2012, the district court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Springer satisfied the Walsh Act commitment criteria. Because the parties agreed that Springer's previous sexual offenses satisfied the prior conduct prong, the evidentiary hearing focused on the final two prongs. At the hearing, both the government's expert, Dr. Graney, and the court-appointed expert, Dr. Hastings, opined that, based on Springer's prior sex offenses involving victims under the age of thirteen, he suffered from pedophilia. Dr. Graney and Dr. Hastings also opined that Springer would have serious difficulty controlling his pedophilic sexual impulses if released.

By contrast, Springer's expert, Dr. Plaud, opined that there was insufficient evidence to diagnose Springer with pedophilia. Rather, Dr. Plaud characterized Springer's previous pedophilic conduct as resulting from delayed sexual maturation caused by physical and sexual abuse during childhood, and contended that it did not reflect continuing sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Dr. Plaud further testified that he does not think Springer "has serious difficulty, as a 34-year-old man, in controlling his sexual impulses today." J.A. 187.

On September 10, 2012, the district court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. United States v. Springer, No. 5:12-HC-2009-BO, 2012 WL 3957857 (E.D. N.C. Sept. 10, 2012). The court, finding Dr. Plaud's testimony more persuasive, determined that the government failed to meet its burden on both the serious mental illness and volitional control prongs. Id. at *2-6. The government appealed. Springer was released from prison in October 2012 after this Court denied the government's request to stay his release pending its appeal.


Before addressing the merits of the government's appeal, it is first necessary to determine whether certain developments that occurred after the district court issued its decision preclude us from deciding this matter at the present time. On December 12, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York found that Springer violated the conditions of his supervised release on the Registration Act conviction by failing to spend at least five evenings at his group residence, despite being instructed to do so by his probation officer, and engaging in a consensual intimate relationship with another adult, who also is a convicted sex offender. Based on these violations, the district court revoked Spring-er's supervised release and sentenced him to thirteen months imprisonment. On February 22, 2013, the Bureau of Prisons again certified Springer as meeting the criteria for civil commitment under the Walsh Act.

As a result of these recent developments, we first consider whether the present case is moot because, regardless of our disposition of the case, Springer will remain in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons until a district court rules on the government's second civil commitment attempt. Additionally, we address the government's alternative contention that we should remand the case to the district court for reconsideration in light of the new evidence regarding Springer's super- vised release violations. In considering these two questions, we also must determine what preclusive effect, if any, decisions in these proceedings will have in Springer's second civil commitment proceeding.


The mootness doctrine is a limitation on federal judicial power grounded in the "case-or-controversy" requirement of Article III of the U.S. Constitution. "[A] case is moot when the issues presented are no longer 'live' or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome." Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969). Because the "case-or-controversy requirement subsists through all stages of federal judicial proceedings, trial and appellate . . . it is not enough that a dispute was very much alive when suit was filed," the parties must retain a concrete interest in the outcome of the litigation throughout all stages of the proceedings. Lewis v. Cont'l Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 477 (1990).

The mootness doctrine, however, constitutes a relatively weak constraint on federal judicial power: "A case becomes moot only when it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party." Knox v. Serv. Emps. Int'l Union, Local 1000, 132 S. Ct. 2277, 2287 (2012) (internal quotation omitted) (emphasis added); see also Ellis v. Ry. Clerks, 466 U.S. 435, 442 (1984) ("[A]s long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in the outcome of the litigation, the case is not moot."). Mootness is a jurisdictional question and thus may be raised sua sponte by a federal court at any stage of proceedings. North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971).

With this background in mind, we now consider whether the present case is moot as a result of either (1) Springer's reincarceration for violating the terms of his supervised release for the Registration Act conviction or (2) the Bureau of Prison's second certification of Springer as sexually dangerous during the pendency of this appeal.

Despite Springer's reincarceration for violating the terms of his supervised release, both parties retained a "concrete interest" in the outcome of the proceedings after Springer was reincarcerated. Had we affirmed the district court's decision prior to the government's second certification, Springer would have been released at the conclusion of his thirteen-month sentence for violating the terms of his supervised release. By contrast, had we reversed, Springer would have been subject to indefinite civil commitment at the conclusion of ...

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