Higher burden on sex offenders upheld

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:17 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The state Supreme Court has upheld a 2004 law imposing a heavier burden on sexual predators seeking their release from civil confinement.

While unanimously upholding the law Tuesday, a divided court also ruled that the sexual offender who challenged the law was at least due a hearing by the judge who dismissed his release request.

Missouri is one of 20 states that allow certain sexual offenders who have completed their criminal sentences to be civilly committed as a “sexually violent predator” to a mental health facility.

Missouri currently has 81 committed sexual predators and 53 sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences but are being detained while the state pursues a civil commitment, according to the Department of Mental Health.

Offenders can ask for their release from the civil commitment at any time. State law directs those requests to a judge, who determines whether there are sufficient grounds to hold a jury trial on the request.

In 2004, lawmakers made it harder for committed sexual offenders to get a jury trial by requiring a judge to find by a “preponderance of the evidence” — instead of probable cause — that the person no longer suffers from a mental abnormality that would make him or her likely to commit sexual violence.

Larry Coffman, 62, who is committed as a sexual predator, argued that the higher standard imposed an undue burden on him and violated constitutional equal protections.

The Supreme Court rejected the burden argument.

It also said there is no constitutional requirement that sexual predators be given exactly the same rights as others who are civilly committed to mental health institutions, because the basis for sexual offender commitments is different.

In 1985, Coffman was sentenced by a St. Louis court to 15 years in prison after being convicted of three counts of sodomy, according to Department of Corrections records.

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