Challenging Minnesota's civil commitment practices
Petitioner Wallace Beaulieu was civilly committed in 2006 as a Sexually Dangerous Person.The ACLU of Minnesota filed an amicus curiae brief in his appeal from the denial of a petition for habeas corpus against the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). Beaulieu is currently being held by DHS at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in Moose Lake. Beaulieu's civil commitment in 2006 was based on two convictions for criminal sexual conduct as well as evidence relating to two charges for which he was acquitted. The length of his civil commitment is "indeterminate" but no other civilly committed SDP has been released since the law was passed in the mid-1990's. Beaulieu informed his attorney that he wished to appeal the civil commitment order. However, his attorney missed the filing deadline for his appeal and it was rejected as untimely. Beaulieu sought review with the Minnesota Supreme Court, which was denied as well. Beaulieu's attorney argued to both courts that the appeal should not be rejected based on an inadvertent mistake made by his attorney.
Beaulieu then filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court, which was denied on the grounds that he had not exhausted his state-law remedies. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. Pursuant to the federal court's decision, Beaulieu attempted to exhaust his state-law remedies by going back to state court to file habeas petition arguing that his attorney had provided him with ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to timely appeal his commitment order. His petition was summarily denied by both the District Court and the Court of Appeals. These denials were based on a determination that the Constitution does not require effective assistance of counsel in civil commitment hearings and habeas relief is not available for violations of the statutory right to effective assistance of counsel. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted review.
In its brief, the ACLU of Minnesota urged the Minnesota Supreme Court to take the necessary steps to ensure that individuals facing civil commitment receive effective assistance of counsel. Given the track record of the MSOP program, Beaulieu is very likely to be civilly committed for the rest of his life. If he were a criminal defendant, due process would require he be afforded an opportunity for appeal, and a habeas action would be available to him as a remedy for his attorney's error. In the context of criminal cases, the failure to file a timely appeal is per se ineffective assistance of counsel. As Judge Klaphake observed in his dissent to the Court of Appeals decision, Beaulieu has "been cast into a no-man's land of non-remedy and indefinite loss of liberty: he has had no direct appeal... and now we are preparing to hold that the final remedy, a state habeas challenge, is also unavailable." Such an outcome would cast an even greater pall on the constitutional legitimacy of the State's indefinite civil commitment scheme.