Washington The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states may keep violent sexual offenders locked up beyond their prison terms only if they prove that the offenders have "serious difficulty" controlling their behavior.
Justices, in a partial victory for Kansas, threw out a ruling in favor of a convicted sex predator because a jury did not consider whether he could stop himself from committing a new crime if allowed to go free.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the 7-2 majority, said states must show "serious difficulty in controlling behavior" and they don't have to show that inmates have no control at all.
Steve McAllister, dean of the Kansas University School of Law and state solicitor, prepared the state's briefs for the case. Though he had requested the state be required to show "some inability" for an inmate to control his behavior, he said he considered the ruling a victory.
"I think the court gave us sufficient wiggle room," he said.
Although the high court said states must address an inmate's lack of control, justices did not say specifically how that should be done.
"They're sort of vague on what we have to prove," McAllister said. "It's hard to know (if someone can control behavior). The psychologists can't agree. The psychiatrists can't agree."
Another question is how the case will affect the more than 1,200 sex offenders in 19 states with laws resembling the 1994 Kansas statute at issue in this case.
The Kansas Supreme Court had ordered a new trial for Michael T. Crane and said a jury should have determined if he was unable to control his behavior. Justices sent Crane's case back to that court for reconsideration.
Crane was convicted of sexually assaulting a video store clerk and exposing himself to a tanning salon attendant in a suburb of Kansas City, Kan. When he was about to be paroled, a jury determined that he should be committed to a state hospital.
Justices had upheld the Kansas sex predator law in 1997. The law allows the indefinite confinement of violent sex offenders beyond their prison terms if they suffer from mental abnormalities or personality disorders making them likely to commit similar crimes in the future.
In 1997, justices did not consider the offender's ability to control his behavior.
Kansas Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall had argued last fall that the Kansas Supreme Court's interpretation was too broad, because almost all sexual offenders possess at least some control over their actions.
Crane's attorney had also said that standard was too broad and asked the justices to find some middle ground.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia who was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas said the state shouldn't be required to prove inability to control behavior.
Stovall said she expected Tuesday's ruling to be the final word on the sexual predator law.
"I don't think that there needs to be another dollar spent to take the sexual predator law back to the Supreme Court," she said.