Challenging Minnesota's civil commitment practices

Case Description

In summer 2009, the ACLU of Minnesota agreed to represent patients challenging the conditions of their confinement in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) "Annex." The Annex is located in a wing of the Moose Lake Correctional Facility. While it is located within the state prison, it is technically a part of the Moose Lake Regional Treatment Center. The Annex houses individuals who have served their prison time but have been civilly committed indefinitely for mental health treatment as Sexually Dangerous Persons or Sexual Psychopathic Personalities. The patients being held in the Annex have exercised their right to refuse to participate in sex offender treatment. Conditions at the Annex are significantly more punitive than in the general MSOP facility located at the Moose Lake Regional Treatment Center.

The plaintiffs (originally represented pro se) challenged numerous unconstitutional conditions, including conditions where:

  • Detainees are subjected to strip searches and are handcuffed and shackled as part of standard operating procedure whenever detainees are transported. For example, detainees are subjected to strip searches after attending patient advisory committee meetings at the MSOP facility or after having a contact visit. This is violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • Detainees' incoming legal mail has, on numerous occasions, been opened outside the presence of the detainee in violation of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
  • Detainees allege that they are not allowed incoming calls and that their calls are monitored in violation of their First Amendment right to telephone access.
  • Detainees are subjected to potentially severe health risks due to inadequate sanitation in violation of their Eighth Amendment rights. Some of these risks include:
    • The constant presence of urine and fecal matter, which is frequently found on the bathroom floors and toilet seats;
    • The unavailability of sanitizers to disinfect floors and toilet seats;
    • The fact that mops and brooms used to clean the bathrooms and showers are also used to clean cells, thereby spreading germs to their cells;

MSOP retaliated against two of the plaintiffs for their participation in litigation challenging their access to religious activities while civilly committed to the MSOP. The retaliation took the form of a reduction in their access to religious services, attorneys, the court, and visitation by family; unreasonable restraint leading to injury; unreasonable searches of property; and, the seizure and copying of legal papers.

The ACLU of Minnesota has long been concerned about the way in which Minnesota's sex offender civil commitment program has been implemented. Although patients are not prisoners, their conditions of confinement often mirror that of prisoners. While the purpose of civil commitment is to provide treatment, few -if any- patients have been released from the program. The ACLU of Minnesota firmly believes that the U.S. Constitution grants all individuals the same rights no matter their identity or background. While defending sex offenders' rights may be considered unsavory to many people, we believe constitutional rights would be meaningless if they did not apply in situations when we are most tempted to violate them.

On February 15, 2011, Magistrate Mayeron issued a finding that the alleged conduct does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation and granted the summary judgment motions brought by the defendants, which dismissed ACLU-MN's case. The ACLU of Minnesota filed an appeal.


Collette Adkins Giese and Brian O'Neill, Faegre & Benson


District Court