Psychiatric Testimony and the SVPA (Part 1)

by | May 18, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On March 11, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of W.W.. The principal issue before the Court was whether the State must present testimony from a psychiatrist in support of the need for continued involuntary commitment of a convicted sexually violent offender at an annual review hearing.

Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: In this appeal, the Court considers whether W.W. was civilly committed after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of a fiveyear-old girl. At his annual review hearing for 2019, the State presented expert testimony from psychiatrist Dr. Marta Scott and psychologist Dr. Jamie Canataro. The State’s two experts presented conflicting opinions on W.W.’s risk of reoffending and whether he should remain committed. Dr. Scott recommended conditional discharge, while Dr. Canataro concluded further commitment was appropriate.

The trial court ordered the continued commitment of W.W. The court concluded that neither the State nor the court was bound by the testimony of the State’s psychiatrist, and it credited Dr. Canataro’s testimony over Dr. Scott’s. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Court granted W.W.’s petition for certification.

The plain language of N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.30(b) requires the State to produce psychiatric testimony in support of commitment when the State seeks the initial or continued commitment of a sexually violent predator. The State therefore did not meet its burden in this case by producing a psychiatrist who did not support commitment. A person who has been committed under the SVPA is entitled to an annual review hearing of the need for involuntary commitment. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.30(b) requires that “[a] psychiatrist on the person’s treatment team . . . shall testify at the hearing to the clinical basis for the need for involuntary commitment.” That provision is identical to its corollary in the general civil commitment statute, N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.13(b), and is also substantially similar to the court rule governing civil commitment of adults, R. 4:74-7(e).

The appellate division’s affirmance of the trial court’s decision speaks to the federalization of our appellate courts. Under Governor Christie, many pro-prosecution judges were appointed to our appellate division. The unanimous reversal of this appellate panel speaks to their lack of objectivity in a case in which it can be difficult to be objective.